TODAY, we’re pleased to welcome back guest writer Judy Gruen, an author and popular online personality. Please, check out Judy’s own Web site for more about her work. At ReadTheSpirit, we urge our readers to support independent authors like Judy in their ongoing creative exploration of spiritual themes. HERE IS …
HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
By Judy Gruen
It’s time to break out the funny masks, the noisemakers, and even the liquor, because Purim is here. Like many other Jewish holidays, Purim commemorates a victory over enemies who tried to annihilate us, yet failed. But Purim is more festive than the rest. We dress in costumes, send gifts of food to one another, give charity on that day, and disrupt the reading of the Book of Esther by booing or shaking our graggers (noisemakers) every time the name of the evil Haman is read. We are even encouraged to drink until we can no longer distinguish between the phrases for “Blessed is Mordechai” and “cursed is Haman.” It’s such a good time, it’s a pity that so many Jews who are careful to observe the more difficult observances, such as Yom Kippur, miss out on Purim!
Purim has all the makings of a great movie drama: palace intrigue and sensuality, fiendish plots, betrayal, a beautiful heroine, and an 11th-hour dramatic rescue of the intended victims. Even though we know how the story ends, everyone remains riveted by the reading in synagogue each and every year. (By the way, here’s a 60-second overview of the entire saga courtesy of Aish.com.)
The Purim saga took place about 2,300 years ago, when Jews had been living in Israel for close to 900 years. But then the Babylonians invaded Israel, destroyed the Temple, and exiled the Jews to Babylon (modern-day Iraq). The Jews built a thriving community in Babylon and neighboring Persia, but their lives were endangered again when Achashverosh overran the region and became the supreme ruler of the Persian Empire.
During a party so ostentatious that it would have put former Wall Street titans to shame, Achashverosh commanded his wife, Vashti, to appear in front of the guests, wearing her crown – and only her crown. When she refused (and not out of modesty either, but that’s another story), Achashverosh had her killed and chose a new queen. His unlikely choice: the Jewess Esther, who didn’t understand why God had plucked her from her quiet life to marry this anti-Semitic lout. Still, one didn’t refuse the king, and Esther kept her true religious identity a secret.
Esther’s uncle, Mordechai (who many commentators say was Esther’s husband) tries to keep tabs on Esther from the palace courtyard, but refuses to bow down when Haman, one of the king’s advisers, walks by. The drama escalates quickly from here. Haman is enraged at this insult by a lowly Jew, and offers a staggering bribe to Achashverosh to allow all of Jews in the 127 provinces of the kingdom to be killed. Secluded in the palace, Esther only learns of the plot through Mordechai, who insists that she intercede with the king. When Esther explains that anyone who appears before the king without being summoned risks an untimely severing of head from body, he responds with one of the most famous passages in the book:
“Do not imagine that you will be able to escape in the king’s palace any more than the rest of the Jews,” Mordechai warns. “If you keep silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come from some other place, and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether it was for such a time as this that you attained the royal position?”
Esther’s bravery, wits and faith go into overdrive at that moment. Through Mordechai, she asks all the Jews in the region to fast and pray with her for three days. In a daring move, she appears before the king not only unbidden but after three days of fasting, when even the most beautiful woman looking for a big favor from her fickle husband might appear less than alluring. Just when the Jews’ situation appears hopeless, the tables are turned, and Esther’s risky strategy to reveal Haman as not only an enemy of the Jews but also as an enemy the king, works. The Jews are saved.
Out of all the 24 sacred Jewish books (including the five books of Moses, the Prophets, and Judges) the Book of Esther is the only one in which God’s name does not appear. Many commentators note that the many references in the book to “king” or “kingship” that seemingly refer to Achashverosh really hint of God. In fact, when Esther appears before Achashverosh to plead for her life and that of her people, it says that she “donned royalty” – meaning, she was wrapped in her faith in the true, eternal King.
The idea of what is real and what is facade permeates the story. Just as God appears to be hidden, Esther’s name also means “hidden.” But eventually, God shows His hand. As the Book of Esther unfolds, Haman falls, his evil machinations exposed. The events leading to his downfall are so improbable that only the hand of God could have orchestrated them. God really was there and in charge the whole time; God was just hiding in plain sight. This is what Mordechai and Esther knew all along. We celebrate Purim by wearing costumes in recognition that what we see in “real” life is often just a facade. Those who appear mighty are often just pawns; true clarity and reality is knowing that God is the only true King and orchestrator of events.
In today’s increasingly unstable and frightening world with events often spinning out of control, I’m comforted by Purim’s lessons. It can he hard to recognize God when times are hard and confusing, but God is there.
God may just be hiding, waiting for the right moment for deliverance.