Every once in a while Jewish traditions cross with Christian traditions in odd ways. They make for interesting bedfellows because of the foreshadowing and stories that the Jewish traditions raise for us. This year is one such year.
Tonight at sunset begins the Jewish holiday of Purim. This is the feast which celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from a death sentence; a holocaust of sorts in the 5th century BC. It’s a wonderful story filled with love, lust, greed, princesses and princes. I’m only surprised that the artists at Disney haven’t gotten hold of it yet. Last year I had the opportunity to tell the story in a unique fashion. In the first person, so to speak. I spoke with a heavy accent, like the aunts in My Big Fat Greek Wedding … so read the following with that voice in mind. Oh, and spit when you say Haman (just for effect):
I am Esther. No … no, no, no. Not THAT Esther. I am her granddaughter. (Laughs a little) … oh look at me … I am not beautiful enough to win the heart of a king. Not even in my youth. My grandmama … now she, oh she was a different story.
And she could tell some stories too. I was never quite sure which ones to believe. But I loved it when she called me over to her wing for tea in the afternoon. It was our special time. I’m named for her, you see, so we had a special friendship. We’d relax on the pillows and drink cup after cup of tea. She’d allow the eunuchs to bring it to her, but then she’d shoo them off. She never did get used to having so many servants around. She liked to pour her own, you know.
Now me, I’ve always lived in this beautiful city Shushan. I get a little nervous when my husband thinks about leaving town for the country side in the summer. But grandmama, she grew up at the country place. It was second nature to her. She and Uncle Mordecai (may his name be blessed) lived there for the longest time. Her parents died when she was very young and he was all she had left in the world. He had never married (he was what we used to call a “funny” uncle … may his name be blessed … ), so he took my grandmama in.
So, today we celebrate Purim, the festival of Lots. Now here is the funny thing. My very grandmama, Esther, told me that this holiday is about her. That we are even now celebrating her story. Well. I find that almost too big to be believed. So. I will tell you the story she used to tell me while we lay about on our pillows, sipping tea. Then you will tell me if you think it is true or not.
Grandmama and Uncle Mordecai (may his name be blessed) had been living out in the country side in a little town by a lake until she was a young woman. They were doing well in this little town, but when Grandmama grew older the town’s busybodies began to busy themselves with Uncle Mordecai (may his name be blessed) and Grandmama. So they left for larger and more anonymous pastures, he being a “funny” uncle and all. They came to the city of Shushan and he was able to establish his business once more.
Shortly after they arrived and settled in, the King’s messenger came through the streets announcing an interesting beauty contest. It seems that the queen had shamed him at a party and she was now the former queen. He was looking for the most beautiful and poised girl in the land to become his new queen. Uncle Mordecai and Grandmama looked at each other. Grandmama was thinking, “Well, I’m glad I have no chance at that! Now let us proceed with our work.” Uncle Mordecai (may his name be blessed) was thinking, “How blessed am I to be the uncle of the most beautiful and poised woman in all the land!! Now I must proceed with my work.” And he gained her acceptance of the idea that she would enter the contest.
Poor grandmama. I and my parents grew up in the royal court. We understand the intrigue and the servants and the gossip. Grandmama was a simple country girl. Beautiful, intelligent and poised. But innocent and naive in the ways of the court. She told me many times over of the miracles and amazing tales that gained her the crown. But I cannot recall those rambling reports. The end result however was that Grandmama was chosen to become Xerxes queen. Who knew a simple Hebrew country girl could become Queen of all Persia?? But that’s exactly what happened. Of course, Uncle Mordecai (may his name be blessed) helped with some of the strategy, and Grandmama was fortunate to have drawn the favor of the best of the court eunuchs. King Xerxes was blinded by Grandmama. I’ve seen the mosaics from the time. She was perfectly lovely.
Grandmama and Uncle Mordecai decided that it would be best if she kept her heritage a secret. Hebrews were not exactly popular in Shushan back then. There weren’t too many of us. We’d drifted north after the diaspora, and many of us had originally been taken as slaves. In later years we’d won our freedom, but were still living outside of Israel. There wasn’t much to go back to. There still isn’t … although I’ve heard that some are gathering now to rebuild the wall in Jerusalem and are following a new leader called Nehemiah. My own grandchildren have said they will go to join him. Me, I’m not so sure …. I think I’m too old to travel that far. But to see the Temple before I die, it would do these old eyes good.
Well … Grandmama made herself busy learning the duties of being Queen and more, learning the intricacies of the royal court. OY!! What a mess. She’s told me more stories about her faux pas. And … she lived in mortal fear of the consequences of her mistakes. After all, Vashti had been banished for simply refusing to dance one night when the King and his friends were drunk.
In the meantime, Uncle Mordecai (may his name be blessed) continued to build his business and went about town freely. Until one day when he passed through the city gate and neglected to properly pay his respects to the King’s advisor, Haman (may his name be cursed). Now Uncle Mordecai meant no disrespect of Haman. Uncle Mordecai, as a proper Hebrew, did not bow or scrape to any man.
Haman (may his name be cursed) could not rid himself of the image of Uncle Mordecai (may his name be blessed) refusing to bow to him … in public … in (of all places) the city gate … the place to be! Did Uncle Mordecai not know who he was dissing? No, Uncle Mordecai was unconcerned. Haman knew, just KNEW, he had been humiliated. He began to lurk in the places that Uncle Mordecai frequented to see if Uncle Mordecai would bow to him. He had himself announced to see if, perhaps, UM had simply made a mistake. But, NO! Uncle Mordecai (may his name be blessed) simply kept about his business as if Haman (may his name be cursed) did not exist. And Haman’s rage grew. And grew. And grew.
In the course of his obsession, Haman (may his name be cursed) discovered that Uncle Mordecai (may his name be blessed) was a Hebrew. So Haman hatched a plan to exact his revenge … not simply on Uncle Mordecai, but on all of Uncle Mordecai’s people as well. He was a clever man and he presented Uncle Mordecai’s insolence to the King. But the way he told it, the whole Hebrew people might at any time be insolent in just sucha manner to the King. Haman (may his name be cursed) concluded that the best and most efficient manner of managing this problem would be to kill all the Hebrew people. Kill them so that none of them would ever dis him or the King again. And everyone in the empire would know what becomes of those who do not give proper respect to the King or his advisors.
Haman (may his name be cursed) presented this plan to the King with all appropriate supplication and whining. And the King bought the idea that Haman was selling! So they rolled the dice to see which day would be best to kill all the Hebrews throughout the empire, thus protecting Haman (and the King) from further disgrace. The date was set for the 13th of Adar. The edict was sealed with the King’s seal and sent out into all the land, but the city of Shushan was bewildered.
Now, Uncle Mordecai (may his name be blessed) put on sackcloth and ashes when he read the edict. Indeed, many Hebrews did the same throughout the land. He was, however, able to get a message to Grandmama about the impending doom and urged her to plead the case of her people before the King. She sent word back, “But I cannot. Anyone who approaches the King without being asked first, is put to death!” Uncle Mordecai, replied … “You must. All Hebrews will be put to death and you will be included in that. Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for just such a time as this?”
Then it was Grandmama’s turn to hatch a plan. She sent instructions to Uncle Mordecai (may his name be blessed), to gather all the Hebrews in Shushan and have them fast for three days and three nights. She promised to fast with them. At the end she promised to approach the King. And so. The tables were now turned. It was Uncle Mordecai who was following Grandmama’s instructions.
The next day, Grandmama prepared herself very carefully. She anointed herself with her best perfume and her grandest cosmetics, then she stood at the foot of the throne room in her most beautiful day gown, with her eyes downcast …. just … so. Until at last the King took notice of her and gave her permission to come forward and speak. At that moment she invited the King and his most favored advisor, Haman (may his name be cursed) to a special dinner party that evening. The king was glad to accept. My Grandmama had the best cooks.
At the dinner, the King grew curious and asked my Grandmama, “Now, what is it you wish from me? Just ask … even though it be half of my empire and it will be yours.” Now Grandmama had become very wise to the ways of the King in her short time at court, and knew not to ask right away. So she said, “If you think well of me and if it would make you happy, please just come again to dinner tomorrow night. I will ask you tomorrow. In fact, it would make me happy if both of you came to dinner tomorrow.”
The next day, Haman (may his name be cursed) could not relish his satisfaction at dining two nights in a row with the King and Queen because the bitterness of Uncle Mordecai’s insolences were so sour in his mouth. The only thing that gave him any solace was giving the order to build a gallows for Uncle Mordecai (may his name be blessed). This was his wife’s idea. And he was able to go to dinner that evening with a somewhat lighter heart.
As the serving eunuch poured from the second bottle of wine that night, the King once again inquired of Grandmama, “Now, my sweet young Queen, what is it that you desire from me? Just ask … even though it be half of my empire and it will be yours.”
Grandmama gathered all of her courage into her throat and replied (with her eyes properly downcast and just a shimmer of tears upon her lashes), “Oh, my King. If you think well of me and if I make you happy, I beg of you … please spare my life and more than that, I beseech you to spare the lives of my people. My people have been sold for destruction and slaughter and annihilation. If we had merely been sold as slaves, I would not bother your royal Greatness with such petty details, but we are to be executed in several months time on the 13th day of Adar and I have no one left to turn to.” She said this last with a proper quiver in her voice as one facing execution without crime or trespass.
The King roared his displeasure at the disgrace that was being brought on the royal household, “Who is HE??? Where is the man who has dared to do such a thing?”
And Grandmama revealed the traitor, “The adversary and enemy is this vile Haman (may his name be cursed.”
The King (in a rage) paced about the palace and the garden, whilst Haman threw himself upon Grandmama and her mercy … begging and pleading for his very life. But it was to no avail. The King upon his return, sent Haman (may his name be cursed) to his death upon the very gallows he himself had built for Uncle Mordecai.
Now, I’m not really clear on how it happened next. The King could not undo his own edict with his seal on it. So he sent out a new edict which allowed the Hebrews to defend themselves against all those who hated and despised them. In some towns and cities (such as Sushan) this meant that many people decided to align themseves with the Hebrews (and Uncle Mordecai who had been elevated to the King’s advisor) and so great festivals erupted. But in other places it seems that battles were fought and as many as 75,000 people were killed on that day which was meant for the annihilation of the Hebrews.
Uncle Mordecai (may his name be blessed) next asked for the execution of all ten of Haman’s (may his name be cursed) sons. The King granted him this request. So it came to pass that Uncle Mordecai the Hebrew became the exterminator of Haman the Aggagite. Which has some greater meaning that Grandmama kept trying to tell me about. I forget now.
I only knew Uncle Mordecai (may his name be blessed) in his most declining years. He was a very devout man. Stern, but ever with a twinkle in his eye for little girls with flowers in their hair. He used to tell me stories about Grandmama when she was a little girl, but she was ever so much more obedient than I. She knew how to find the hidden things, how to seek after the important bits. Grandmama and Uncle Mordecai … well … they knew how to find their way back to Adonai in all of this. But, me. I hear this story and I cannot find Him anywhere. Grandmama used to insist that yes, He was at work behind the scenes … I say He was so far behind, he must have been in Egypt. To me, Adonai became the God who hides in this story. Where is He? He is nowhere to be found. Afterall, He is not the God of Xerxes, nor of Haman and that is clear in the destruction they planned for us. He is the God of Uncle Mordecai and of my people and even my people went about killing for sport.
So at last we are at the end of my story … we celebrate this day and this redemption. But I ask you now, do you think this story my Grandmama told me was true? Just how did we come to celebrate Purim? Why is this day so different from all other days?
You can find the real story of Esther in your Bible or click on that link. It’s one of my personal favorites. Where is God in this story? As we enter the days where we commemorate Jesus’ death before the resurrection, I wonder about the presence of Yahweh and how we hear Her. How we act or don’t? Then, when we do, sometimes we carry out not justice, but revenge.