Purim is coming soon, beginning on the evening of March 20th this year. That’s the Jewish holiday when we read the Scroll (aka Book) of Esther, which itself describes some of the traditions—days of feasting and joy, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor (9:22). But most Purim customs come from the tone of the book, a kind of burlesque with reversals, exaggerations, bawdy humor and caricatures. So we dress up in costumes, spin satires, and (as adults) drink a bit too much. When reading the Scroll of Esther in the congregation, we drown out the name of the villainous Haman with noisemakers (groggers)—as if we can silence the force of evil.
Purim is one of my favorite holidays, mostly because it weaves profound messages into all the silliness. One of them is that, even with all our discerning and planning and preparing, sometimes our vocation finds us rather than the other way around. It happens to Esther.
Let me start at the beginning. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…. OK, Persia. The point is that the story is fictional, telling truths without getting into the messiness of history. It begins with a huge frat party. The somewhat foolish King Achashverosh hosts all the nobles and governors of his vast kingdom for a 6-month kegger with a “no limit” rule for drinking. Amidst the revelry, the king commands his wife, Queen Vashti, to come show off her exquisite beauty. Riiiight—come parade before a bunch of drunken, powerful men. When Vashti refuses, the king banishes her from his presence (#metooVashti).
The marital dust-up becomes a crisis of state, and Ahashverosh is persuaded to make a law that all wives must obey their husbands. They post this ludicrous edict in every language, in every province of the kingdom. (Gee, there is something familiar about people getting a bit desperate if they fear losing their disproportionate power).
When the king gets lonely, the administration decides to assemble all the beautiful virgins so he can pick a new queen. It is often described to children as a beauty pageant, but the text is pretty explicit that it’s a series of one-night stands unless the king is pleased enough to remember the woman’s name and ask for her again. These women have been taken, they have keepers and, after they have been “deflowered,” they spend the rest of their lives as concubines. Deliberately exaggerated in the telling, it is part of the story’s unflattering portrayal of the Persian court as irrational, tyrannical and decadent.
One of these young women is a Jewish orphan named Hadassah who lives with her foster father, Mordechai. When she is taken to the palace, Mordechai urges her not to tell them her Hebrew name—too Jewish. Instead, she should go by her Persian name, “Esther.” Fortunately, like Joseph in Egypt, Esther finds favor in the eyes of the guards and wins the admiration of all who see her. King Achashverosh is also smitten: he chooses Esther to be the new queen.
Boom. Vocation finds you, Part I. It’s not likely that Esther was told she could be anything she wanted when she grew up and subsequently decided she would become the first Jewish queen in the highly stratified Persian society. To what extent is the vocation of the powerless to simply survive? Is discernment sometimes only the freedom to determine how best to play the hand you are dealt? Could life among the concubines have been her vocation instead, or does it appear as a calling only because she won?
Shortly thereafter, the king appoints a wealthy man named Haman to be his prime minister. All the courtiers are ordered to bow down before him, and most of them do. As a Jew, however, Mordechai refuses to bow down before any man or idol. Haman is outraged and goes to King Achashverosh. Feeling insulted by this one man, he wants to kill all the Jews of the realm in response. He persuades the king that Jews are not like other people; they have their own customs and consequently cannot be trusted. He also offers the king a lot of money for the royal treasury to order the Jews’ destruction, and Achashverosh readily agrees. It shouldn’t be that easy to “other” people, but we know it is.
Haman is a comic villain, a self-deceiving braggart, and we are not supposed to be truly afraid of him. Tragically, however, our history makes it impossible to read the threat of annihilation as ridiculous.
It is amidst this calamity that Esther finds her vocation. She doesn’t appear to be the sharpest tool in the shed at the outset. When Mordechai appears at the palace gate wearing sackcloth and ashes, her first instinct is to send him new clothes. Upon learning from a messenger about the edict to murder all the Jews, and that Mordechai wants her to intercede for her people with the king, Esther balks. No one is allowed into the king’s presence without being summoned. Unless the king decides to extend the golden scepter—yes, a wee bit suggestive—she could be put to death. Mordechai responds,
Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent now, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for such a time as this.Book of Esther 4:13-14
Boom. For such a time as this. Your vocation finds you, Part II. It is less a calling than a crisis. Evil presents itself as the rule of law, life is suddenly precarious, and personal courage is required. Your calling makes a claim on the power you have acquired. You are being summoned to identify with the marginalized because they really are your people, no matter your station.
There is more to the story, of course. You’ll just have to go (re)read it to see how it turns out. Perhaps you will appreciate the inversions, as the queen of proper breeding is overthrown and an orphan crowned, as Haman builds a stake to kill Mordechai but ends up himself impaled on it, as the Jews are one day marked for death and the next so powerful that everyone wants to convert. You’ll notice the piquant ironies, as one queen is doomed for refusing to appear and the other fears for her life by appearing uninvited, as two characters experience the same conversation but each understands it differently, and as they all feast inside the palace while a pogrom looms beyond the walls. You might feel free to laugh at the bawdy humor, and thrill at the ways it uses representations of Otherness to sabotage the politics of misogyny and anti-Judaism.
Luther didn’t think much of the text: “The book of Esther I toss into the Elbe. I am such an enemy to the book of Esther that I wish it did not exist, for it Judaizes too much and has in it a great deal of heathenish foolishness.” I think he missed the joke—and the ways that Esther illuminates dilemmas confronting us still.
Rachel S. Mikva is the Rabbi Herman Schaalman Chair in Jewish Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary and Senior Faculty Fellow for the InterReligious Institute. She works at the intersections of exegesis, culture and ethics. Rabbi Dr. Mikva contributed to the recently released book on vocation, Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy (Oxford University Press, 2019).