Thursday, March 09, 2006

The original Purim Parody

As the blogopsphere continues to laugh out-loud at the marverlous parodies being posted via the Muqata I thought it would be appropriate to spend some time with the original Purim parody: Megilas Esther.


The generation described in the Megilla was the generation of Jews who chose Persia over Jerusalem. One of the great disapointments of that era was that so few Jews accepted Korech's invitation to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Zechariah, the book of prophecy, was written at this time, and its read by many as a scathing rebuke of the Jews who stayed behind. Esther, perhaps, was written from the same perspective but with a subtler touch.


Let's look at the book's most famous verse:
Ish yehudi hoya b'Shushan haBira uShmo Mordichai / A Jewish man was in Shusan the capital and his name was Mordichai
Consider this:

* The only other time the phrases ish yehudi appears in Tanach is Zecharya 8:23 where is describes a Jew who had successfuly led all of the nations into the service of the one God.

* The only other times the word bira appears in Tanach it specifically refers to the Temple.

* The name, Mordichai, as you know, is the name of a Babylonian god.

Now that you're aware of the context, do you hear the verse's sting? It's saying, "Instead of being in the Jewish bira where he belongs, your ish yehudi is in a foreign bira, with a foreign name."

Other verses are no gentler. In Esther 1:9-12 we're told:

[Vashti was told to] come to the king... but she did not come as the King comanded and he became very angry.
This may refer to the Jewish people who stayed behind in Persia after the God called them to Jerusalem. When the king, in the next set of verses, worries that all women will follow Vashti's example and disobey their husbands, the author is suggesting that nothing can be expected from other nations if even Israel won't obey God.

In Esther 3:8 we're told:
There is a certain nation scattered among the other nations.. and the laws of the King they do not keep, so there is no reason for the King to leave them alone
From the perspective of parody, this is a threat. The author is warning the Jews of the disapora that if they ignore God's law, and remain in exile, there is no reason for God to keep them as His people.

Example such as these two I've shared abound in Esther - when you know what to look for they jump off the page - so I'll close with something disimillar.

At the very end of the Megilla, we're told that Mordicha and Esther sent messages to the other Jews instructing them to keep Purim. What was the content of this message? Divrei Sholom v'emet.

These two words point us directly to Zechariah 7:5-14 where we're told that before the devine presence can return to Jerusalem some basic comandments muct be kept, notably:
"Truth, social justice, helping the poor and needy, and thinking kindly of your neighbor."
And what are the first words on this laundry list of liberal intitiatives? "Emet uMishpat Sholom"

Later, in Zecharya 8:18-19, the list is rendered into the shorthand of "emet v'Sholom" (which is echoed by Mordichai and Esther in their letter) where we are told that the four fast days will become days of celebration only after the Jews love "emet v'Sholom."

It's almost as if Esther and Mordichai are instituting Purim to serve as a yearly reminder to disapora Jews that the bira in Jerusalem waits for them, still, and can be achieved if Zecharya's reqiuirmeents are met.

Some notes:
* The fact that the book might be a parody tells us nothing about it's accuracy. Though GH, the well-known murderer of baby seals, insists that Esther was written by Zaboomafoo the evolutionist, it is possible that Esther's author chose to describe events that actually occured via parody.

* Even kofers who deny everything should be able to find something to like in this post. Because, even if Esther was written later in the Second Temple period, as scholars suggest, it can still be read as a rebuke --not of Persian Jews, but of the Jews of the Hellenistic Diaspora.

* I don't expect anything that appears above is new to folks who've made a career of studying heresy, but it was new to me. I first heard some of this last year, on the Shabbos after Purim, from a guest scholar who spoke in one of our neighborhood schuls. Later, I found many of the same thoughts here Sources are all courtesy of