Wednesday 7 March 2012

Remembering Esther

Today, Jews are celebrating the festival of Purim, which remembers and honours the story of Mordechai and Esther.  It’s a happy, raucous festival that has its roots in the past and its flowering branches right here in the present.  It’s a story of threats and intrigues, of reversals and successes, that has all the elements of the best adventures. 

For those unfamiliar with the story of Esther, it took place in the Babylonian city of Susa, about 6 centuries BCE. 

Aheasurus, the king of Persia, celebrated his ascension to the throne by throwing a 180-day-long party for all of his subjects.  Following the big celebration he hosted a smaller week-long feast for the dignitaries of his capital city.  While hosting this smaller party, he urged his queen—Vashti—to appear before his male guests so that he might show them her beauty.  The queen, being a modest woman, refused his request and was, as a consequence, put to death.

When Aheasurus grew lonely for a wife, he ordered his courtiers to bring him the most beautiful women in the land.  He would choose among them for a new queen to take the place of Vashti. 

One of the women brought to Aheausrus was Esther; a beautiful young woman who had been raised by her cousin Mordechai, a leader of the Jewish community. Esther was taken to the king against her will and refused to beautify herself in order to capture his attention, but the king chose her nonetheless.   Esther became Aheasurus’ queen but—instructed by Mordechai—did not tell him that she was a Jew.

Shortly after Esther became queen, Mordechai overheard a plot to assassinate the king.  He reported it, and the king’s life was saved.

At the same time, the king appointed a new prime minister—Haman—and issued a decree that all citizens show their respect to Haman by bowing down before him.  As a Jew, Mordechai was forbidden by his religious beliefs to bow down before any person.  He refused to bow down before Haman, and Haman, infuriated by the refusal, resolved to take revenge upon the Jews.  He was determined to punish them for their pride.

Haman offered the king 10,000 talents in exchange for permission to punish the Jews, but the king—no lover of Jews himself—told him "The money is yours to keep, and the nation is yours to do with as you please."[i] Haman, taking this as the king’s permission, sent a proclamation throughout the land, sealed with the king’s seal.  The proclamation ordered that, on the 13th day of Adar, citizens would rise up and kill all the Jews in Persia.

When Mordechai heard about the proclamation to kill the Jews, he sent a message to Esther requesting that she intervene on behalf of her people. 

At first, Esther refused to intervene.  Anyone who entered the king’s presence unsummoned could be put to death, and she had not been summoned to the king in more than thirty days.  Mordechai persuaded Esther to act though, by reminding her that if she chose not to help and the people were saved by some other means, she and her descendants would reap the consequences.

Esther formed a plan to persuade the king by hosting two feasts for the king and Haman.  Mordechai stood at the gate as the king and Haman went in to the first feast, but again he refused to bow down.  Haman was so infuriated by Mordechai’s continued refusal to bow that he decided to hang Mordechai, and ordered a gallows to be built for that purpose.

At the same time Haman was having the gallows erected, the king was reviewing the royal chronicles and learned of Mordechai’s act to save his life.  When he next saw Haman, the king ordered him to honour Mordechai for his heroism by dressing him in royal garments and parading him through town on a royal horse. You can imagine how Haman felt about that!

At the second feast she hosted for the king and Haman, Esther pleaded with the king to spare the Jews and, in doing so, to spare both Malachai and herself.  The king became very angry with Haman for his plan to kill the Jews and, upon learning about the gallows intended for Mordechai, ordered that Haman be hung on the gallows instead.

Royal decrees could not be repealed so, to counter Haman’s plan, the king issued a new decree  permitting the Jews to defend themselves against their attackers. He also appointed Mordechai prime minster. 

On the 13th day of Adar the Jews mobilized and killed the enemies who would have harmed them, including Haman’s sons, who lived in Susa.  Mordechai and Esther decreed that, from that time, the 13th day of Adar would commemorate these events in the festival of Purim.  Purim continues to be celebrated to this day.

Why does this holiday continue to hold relevance centuries later?
  • It’s a story of adventure and intrigue that captures the imaginations of those who hear it. 
  • It teaches the importance of standing by your beliefs in the face of difficult consequences.
  • It demonstrates that taking a stand and making difficult moral choices will be ultimately be rewarded. 

On a cultural note, Purim is the first Jewish festival to arise from the diaspora.  This was a triumph of Jewish people and culture surviving outside of Judea.  It’s celebrated by Jews worldwide.

If you’d like to learn more about the story of Esther, you can find a movie version  of the story on line here.

If you’d like to celebrate Purim with some traditional Jewish cooking, you can find some good recipes here.

Happy Purim to all my Jewish friends.  Standing by your beliefs is always something to be honoured, and remembering your history cause for celebration.  I’m wishing you joy today.


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