What is — to your mind — the most frightening moment of the Purim story?
I will admit that this question might seem somewhat strange. Purim, after all, is not an occasion designed to inspire fear. Celebration, merriment, frivolity all are much more the order of the day.
And yet I would argue that there are many candidates for the most frightening moment of the Purim story. Rooted at the historical juncture when our first national exile (the Babylonian Exile) becomes an exile — a galut — of choice, Purim emerges as a paradigmatic tale of narrowly missed national tragedy. Through its events, God delivers a message to the vast majority of Babylonian Jews who choose not to return to Israel, but to remain behind under Persian rule: If it’s galut you want, it’s galut you will get. I will show you what diaspora existence truly means, in all of its glory.
Not by accident, therefore, the Purim story is populated by phenomena that will appear over and over again in the long exile journey of our people: overwhelming instability (v’nahfoch hu), God’s hiddenness (hester panim), irrational hatred of the Jew (Haman), a complicit world (Achashveirosh), martyrdom (Esther), and more. Not by accident, as well, Jewish communities and families across time will view Purim as a paradigm for their experience. Dozens of these groups, upon narrowly escaping tragedy, will establish their own unique celebrations and refer to each as “Purim of [the community/family].” The classical Purim story is seen by these people as a serious tale, foreshadowing their own story and other stories like theirs across the face of history.
Which brings us back to our original question. Given the serious, prescient character of the Purim narrative, what is, to your mind, the most frightening moment in the tale?
Is it when Esther is taken to the king’s palace on a journey from which she is never to return? Is it when Haman rises to power, or when he irrationally threatens the entire Jewish population of Persia with destruction? Perhaps it is the dramatic moment captured by the Megilla as it contrasts Achashveirosh’s and Haman’s callousness with the consternation caused by their edict: “And the King and Haman sat down to drink and the city of Shushan was astonished.” Are you captivated by Esther’s plaintive plea as she initiates her voluntary audience with the King: “And if I will be lost, I will be lost”? Or are you moved most by the extent of Achashveirosh’s pitiless cruelty as he mandates civil war in the streets of his kingdom, refusing to withdraw the edict against the Jews, instead permitting their right to self-defense? A pox on both your houses, the king affirms. Let blood run through the streets of my cities. As long as I am not involved.
Truth be told, the Purim story is filled with frightening moments.
My choice for the most frightening moment of the Purim story, however, actually is none of the above. It is a choice that probably will surprise you.
Travel back with me to the following scene. Mordechai, dressed in sackcloth, has arrived at the gates of the palace. Forbidden to enter in clothes of mourning (a clear indication of the king’s determination to keep his subjects’ pain at an arm’s length), Mordechai sends a message to Esther informing her of the edict against the Jewish population. He asks her to gain an audience with the king in order to plead on behalf of people. Esther demurs. She explains to Mordechai that the king (in yet another attempt to totally control his own insular existence) summarily executes anyone who appears before him without being summoned, only sparing those to whom he extends his scepter. She points out that she has not been summoned to the king for 30 days. Esther apparently hesitates to take a chance.
How would we expect Mordechai to react to Esther’s concerns? We would suppose, I think, that Mordechai would appeal to Esther’s sense of duty and responsibility. How can you send me such an answer? Will you not risk your life to save your nation? Are you willing to stand idly by as your brothers and sisters are murdered in a government-sanctioned pogrom?
Startlingly, however, Mordechai’s initial response to Esther is totally different. He immediately retorts: “Do not think in your soul that those in the king’s palace will be spared the fate of all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your father’s house will perish.” Effectively, Mordechai argues: Esther, don’t think that you are safe. Don’t assume that your place in the palace will spare you from the fate of your people. If you fail to act, your people still survive, but you will not.
Only after conveying that warning does Mordechai appeal to Esther’s higher sensibilities. “And who knows whether it was specifically for a time like this that you attained a royal position.”
How are we to understand Mordechai’s initial response to Esther? Does he really imagine that Esther is concerned only for her own safety? Does he not know the true character of the extraordinary woman who grew up in his own home (and who, according to midrashic tradition, actually became his wife)?
Mordechai’s concerns can be understood once we clearly define the source of his fear. Esther has, after all, spent considerable time by now in the palace of Achashveirosh. She has been exposed to a monarchy that is completely defined by its desperate desire for distance from the outside world. What happens outside my palace gates, Achashveirosh insists, stays outside my palace gates. As long as I am safe, as long as I can continue to live in the palace world of my own creation, I do not care what happens to my subjects.
Mordechai understands the powerful effect that living in such an environment can have, even upon someone as strong as Esther. Is it possible, he wonders in fear, that my dear Esther has actually been changed? Has Esther, without her own awareness, become uncaring? Has she begun to become like them?
Desperate to convince Esther to appear before the king, therefore, Mordechai argues the only way that he can. Esther, do not think that you are safe. Only after making that argument does he then appeal to the Esther whom he has known for years; to the Esther who can and will rise up to save her people, even at great cost to herself.
And, indeed, Esther does take heroic action. For the sake of her nation, she takes a step that not only endangers her life, but according to rabbinic tradition, seals her spiritual fate. “And if I am lost, I am lost,” she says to Mordechai. By initiating, for the first time, a voluntary audience with the King, I will have crossed a line of no return. I will be lost to my people forever.
Here, then, comes what, to my mind, is the most frightening moment of the Purim story. It’s the moment when Mordechai fears that Esther may have changed. His fear underscores the second great danger of living in an alien, evil world. For while you can easily become a victim in such a world; you can just as easily become a perpetrator. You continually run the risk of letting that world change you, of allowing those around you to make you like them.
As we enter the Purim/Pesach season, a time of focus on the history of our people, we once again should recognize what may well be our greatest accomplishment as a people. Not simply that we have survived; but how we have survived. Surrounded by hate, we have refused to become haters; surrounded by lies, we have invariably spoken the truth; surrounded by immorality, we have remained moral. Guided by our Torah and tradition, we have fulfilled our responsibility of being a light unto the nations. Against all odds, we have remained, in our hearts and souls, largely unchanged by the world around us.
And now, as we build our homeland anew, we once again refuse to become like them. Our textbooks do not preach the wanton murder of our enemies; we struggle with democratic process while surrounded by tyranny and oppression; we strive for peace with our neighbors in the face of aggression; we vigilantly protect our own interests, yet struggle to respect the rights of others, as well. And when we misstep, as we invariably will, we honestly recalibrate and do our best to regain our footing.
In the turbulent months ahead, as our nation faces momentous decisions, we pray that God guide us in our struggle against all threats presented by our enemies. May we secure a safe, strong future for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. And may we always remain the people that we are; fundamentally unchanged by those around us; true to our God, our heritage, and ourselves.