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A Study in Contrasts

by Tim O'Hearn

The book of Esther is the history of the holiday of Purim. (March 14 in 2006) This is an unusual holiday, in keeping with the unusual nature of the book.

For my Christian readers who may never have attended a Purim assembly, here is a brief description. One of the first things you notice as you approach the synagogue is that the children and some adults are in costumes. While these may represent the characters in the story, they may also be historical or political figures. Thus you might see an Abraham Lincoln or Hillary Clinton in the crowd. Once inside the synagogue the principal event is the reading of the book (Megillah) of Esther. This is a study in contrasts. Throughout much of the story silence reigns, so everyone can hear the reading. Around chapter three, however, be ready to cover your ears. It is in that chapter that Haman is first mentioned. Every time his name is read, everyone uses a noisemaker to ďblot outĒ his name. Then everyone goes silent again until the hated name comes around once more. This is reminiscent of old melodramas where everyone booís the villain. After the reading comes the party. This may include beauty contests (like the one in the book) or judging of the best costume. There is food and drink and general merriment, and a general letting down of oneís guard. Later, at home, there may be more parties. Usually the food includes triangular fruit-filled pastries called Hamantaschen (Hamanís pockets), or sometimes Hamanís Ears. The only other essential of the day is sending food baskets to others (at least two people) and giving to charity.

Most Jewish assemblies, like most conservative Christian assemblies, are pretty staid affairs. There is praying and scripture reading, and maybe a sermon. There is almost never shouting and celebration. The Megillah of Esther is similar. Although it starts and ends with celebrations, most of the book seems pretty serious. There are plots, and subplots. There is danger of death, and even the construction and use of a gallows. Not the sort of things that parties are made of. As suddenly as the cacophony that greets Hamanís name in the reading, the danger is over and the celebration ends.

The book is also in mask, so to speak. Purim celebrants wear costumes and masks, and hide their true identity. It is often remarked that in the reading of Esther you will never hear the name of God mentioned. God is there, but hiding behind a mask of coincidence and happenstance.

Like the other book named after a woman, this book may even contain a surprise ending. If you were reading Ruth for the first time you might say this is a nice story, until the end when you realize that it is really about the great-grandmother of King David. In like manner, after reading the book of Esther you may realize that this woman may have been the grandmother of Cyrus the Persian, who made the decree returning the Jews to Jerusalem. What a lesson! We may think that our lives are pretty ordinary. We may be involved in something unusual, even. But we usually consider our forebears and not our descendants. We honor those who made us who we are, but we should also consider that we may be the forebears of someone great, someone who will lead Godís people.

Toward the end of the book Mordechai decrees that the resulting holiday should include sending food and charity to others. This practice continues among Jews today. But even that is part of the strangeness of this book. Throughout much of the reading we find uncharitable attitudes, even hatred. What caused the potential destruction of the Jews was one manís self-centered behavior. It is that selfishness that causes occasion for generosity.

Melodrama. Surprise endings. Bigger-than-life characters. These are the things of drama. These are also the things that make rereading Esther annually such a fun and important thing.