Purim, Play, and Power

by Rabbi Debra Rappaport

I’ve always loved Purim for the opportunity it provides to play – in costumes, through the story of EstherPurim shpiels, giving gifts, festive meals, and more. Embracing paradox, the playfulness of Purim has deeply serious undertones. Through the absurd, ironic story of Esther, we stir the pot in our own communities, poking fun at institutions and leaders who have gone astray. It’s the season to subversively cast light on our collective shadows. Purim gives us opportunities to push ourselves out of our comfort zones – feeling our vulnerability, owning our power, experiencing catharsis.

Many of the themes of the Purim story are particularly poignant this year. One thing that stands out to me is how hard the eponymous Esther tries to deny the new reality, after Haman’s decree against the Jews. Esther embraces business-as-usual when Mordechai comes to talk to her wearing his sackcloth of mourning. Accepting that no mourning is allowed in the palace(!), Esther sends clothes to her uncle – in essence asking him to pretend everything is okay, just as she is pretending to not be Jewish. He declines and sends her a message: she must help her people. She says no, that’s not possible, I can’t approach the king (a.k.a. I have no power). Mordechai doesn’t let it go – and it’s only now he sends her this well-known message (Esther 4:13-14):

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר מׇרְדֳּכַ֖י לְהָשִׁ֣יב אֶל־אֶסְתֵּ֑ר אַל־תְּדַמִּ֣י בְנַפְשֵׁ֔ךְ לְהִמָּלֵ֥ט בֵּית־הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ מִכׇּל־הַיְּהוּדִֽים׃

Mordecai had this message delivered to Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace.

כִּ֣י אִם־הַחֲרֵ֣שׁ תַּחֲרִ֘ישִׁי֮ בָּעֵ֣ת הַזֹּאת֒ רֶ֣וַח וְהַצָּלָ֞ה יַעֲמ֤וֹד לַיְּהוּדִים֙ מִמָּק֣וֹם אַחֵ֔ר וְאַ֥תְּ וּבֵית־אָבִ֖יךְ תֹּאבֵ֑דוּ וּמִ֣י יוֹדֵ֔עַ אִם־לְעֵ֣ת כָּזֹ֔את הִגַּ֖עַתְּ לַמַּלְכֽוּת׃

“On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, 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 just such a crisis.”

I’ve always heard the message this way: “and who knows – וּמִ֣י יוֹדֵ֔עַ mi yodea – you may have been put in this position for just such a moment.” It’s a powerful call to action in any era, for any person. What strikes me now are these words: הִגַּ֖עַתְּ לַמַּלְכֽוּת higatah la-malchut, you’ve arrived at royalty – you’re in a position of malchut, kingship, real positional power. And it’s provisional, so use it while you can.

Esther, the eponymous character, is from the Hebrew root sin-taf-resh, which means “hidden” or “secret.” She was called Hadassah, until Mordechai encouraged her name change in order to become queen among the gentiles. In eventually “coming out,” Esther saves her people. Are there aspects of you that haven’t come out yet, but are being beckoned? Are there ways you’re holding onto a reality that has shifted? Where do you have power that until now you haven’t embraced?

From the laughter and disruption, from deeply entering the discomfort of Purim, may we be free-er to create the community and world that could be, if each of us can be present with the realities of the present moment and step fully into our power.