by Leeza Negelev, Associate Director of Education
I like to consider myself someone who has an appreciation of the absurd, but there has always been something about the absurdity of Megillat Esther that I have found unnerving. This Purim, for the first time, I find it comforting.
Purim is a tale of a power-hungry villain who works for an easily swayed, ego-maniacal king. It’s full of irony, major plot twists, and hidden heroes. It’s fun because there are costumes, carnivals, and drinking. On the other hand, if you take the story at all seriously, it’s terrifying. The Jews are targeted for destruction, and the people in power are bananas (remember how Queen Vashti is deposed because she wouldn’t show herself off to the King’s drunken friends? Or that one Jew not bowing down to Haman inspires Haman to kill off the entire Jewish population?). But the Purim story is supposed to be a farce, a parable to showcase the hidden hand of God and the victory of the Jewish people over a chaotic and unpredictable monarchy.
So here comes that quintessentially Jewish question: What makes this Purim different from all the others?
Do you see where I’m going yet? I suspect it is because this year the absurdity is real for me. The haphazard rule of a belligerent king and his hateful sidekick sounds sort of familiar. I see this once ancient-sounding farce seemingly playing out on a national stage and on my forever-refreshing newsfeed. I think the only thing that would make it more real is if each new executive order was dispersed throughout the land and announced to the sound of royal trumpets.
I see chaos in ICE raids, a travel ban targeting Muslims, vandalized Jewish cemeteries, and bomb threats to JCCs all over the country. It has been a painful reminder of the ongoing work required to defend human dignity in a democracy that has always seemed to me shaky, at best. It is also a reminder to me that the sometimes-pervasive feeling that I’m powerless, needs to be interrupted.
This Saturday night when I hear Mordechai plead with Esther to interrupt the plan for her people’s genocide… and she says sorry, no can do… I am shocked to say: I get it, and perhaps for the first time. Mordechai demands that she speak with the King and Esther responds honestly: he’s dangerous, unpredictable, and quick to kill for an unwelcome visit. How many times has the fear of getting in trouble or upsetting others stopped me from speaking up? Not only does Esther fear retribution, she also just doesn’t understand that her life, too, is implicated. She has hidden her true identity to live in a palace that feels far away from the fate of her own people.
In many ways, I, too, am in that palace. As a white, American-born Jew, I’m not afraid to leave my house for fear of being deported, and the government has not identified Jews as a dangerous population that should be barred from entering the country. And yet the vandalized cemeteries and bomb threats come to me like Mordechai’s harsh response to Esther: “Do not imagine that you… will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace.” It is a reminder to me that in this absurd time, my life and survival are bound up with the lives of others.
After hearing these words, Esther, (whose name comes from the Hebrew root, meaning ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’), realizes she must act, figures out her strategy, and reveals herself to the King as a Jew, demanding a different outcome. When I hear the megillah this weekend, I will think about Esther’s decision to stick her neck out. Whether it is the opportunity to disrupt hateful words, or a hateful act, whether it is for my own people for whom I demand justice or for the many others who are being targeted, I will try to remember that it’s not a time for me to stay quiet, despite the risk.
This Friday, as a way of preparing to revel in the chaos and absurdity, I plan to immerse at Mayyim Hayyim. Mayyim Hayyim is one of the few places in this world that seem to know nothing of the world outside. Even when my heart feels like a heavy, sinking rock, the waters remind me I can float. I’m looking forward to drowning out the noise, underwater for only a brief moment, before returning to the chaos of Purim, followed by the world which I cannot ignore.
Leeza Negelev is the Associate Director of Education at Mayyim Hayyim.