Purim is this weekend — very early this year, and I am planning, God and gut willing, to enjoy a wonderful party at my synagogue tomorrow night. For those not in the know, Purim celebrates the book of Esther. This is one of my very favorite texts in the Bible. Ancient — and modern — stories are full of warnings about how women’s sexuality, boldness, curiosity turn the natural order of the world upside down. (Think of Eve, Pandora, Psyche and Eros …) In the book of Esther, it takes a woman’s sexuality, boldness, and curiosity to turn a disordered world right again. It reminds me of Sojourner Truth: “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!”
Esther is about coming out of the closet.
Esther is about being fabulous and unashamed.
Esther is about facing the music and dancing.
Esther is also my Hebrew name, and when I converted, I gave this talk at my naming ceremony:
I chose Esther as much for her weaknesses as for her strengths. She is the least heroic of heroines. Esther is not a judge or a warrior or a matriarch: Esther is a girly girl. She is pretty and charming and wants life to be easy. She wants other people to make the hard decisions, to wrestle the scary angels of history and destiny. The traditional role of women is not a burden or a constraint on Esther—rather, it is her greatest temptation. Women can get away with not taking ultimate responsibility for our lives. Women can get by on our charm and good looks. Women can sit in the boat admiring the scenery while the men do the heavy rowing. And this is what Esther wants to do.
And yet, when the dice are thrown, she does take responsibility, and when she does, she takes it all the way. Although Mordechai must convince her to take action, she is not simply his handmaiden or puppet. Independently, she assesses his arguments and is persuaded. Independently, she plans a course of action. Independently, she improvises brilliantly and bravely, with lipstick, dinner-party banter, and a bottle of wine.
I look at Esther and I see a warning about the temptations I face.
I look at Esther and I see an inspiration to take responsibility and improvise.
I look at Esther and I see a woman I would like to have as a friend.
Esther’s story is comic, it is improbable, it does not mention God.* The story of Esther teaches us to take control of our destiny, yet always be ready to accept the unpredictable turns of events. It teaches us to enjoy good times but never assume that they will last. It teaches us that we can do great things in diaspora, but that ultimately Jewish security rests on having our own land. It teaches us that sometimes we need another person to remind us to be a hero, and there is no shame in that. It teaches us that the one who is rescued can become the rescuer, that the student can educate the teacher. It teaches us that we must take responsibility without the luxury of signs and miracles, without a sense of being called. Finally, it teaches the most important ways for a Jew to serve God is not through ostentatious piety, but through fighting idolatry and working for the future of the Jewish people.
All of these things I believe.
For those of you who are interested in further thoughts on Esther, read my sermon here. Reverend Victoria Weinstein of Norwell First Parish Unitarian Church, whom I met through her wonderful and oft-referenced “Beauty Tips for Ministers” blog, graciously invited me to speak to her congregation three years ago. Her explanation of the role of image in the ministry is first, and my thoughts on style, beauty, and the book of Esther are second.
*If you are reading from a Catholic bible, this isn’t the case. Catholic bibles include verses about Mordechai praying that were deemed non-canonical by the compilers of the Hebrew and Protestant bibles. With due respect to the Catholic tradition, I find it very important that God and the concept of direct communication with the Divine are not mentioned in Esther. Sure, it may not have been easy to be Abraham (what with that self-circumcision and all) or Moses, but God was telling them what to do every step of the way. Mordechai and Esther must make very difficult decisions under conditions of uncertainty, believing they know God’s will but without the specific guidance of how to make that will come to pass. Like most of us.