Contemporary Reflections on an Old Narrative
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
In recent years, much has been written about Purim with its distinctive political themes and leadership insights. Through their actions, the story’s principal characters, Esther and Mordecai, dramatically offer us a model of active intervention. Over the past several years, this writer has offered two earlier “takes” on the Purim saga. In this piece, five additional themes are being introduced, adding to the quality and depth of this book’s powerful imagery and its timeless messaging:
The Absence of God: How can it be a Biblical text without the presence of God? Many scholars interpret the actions of Esther as holy-inspired. God is seen as acting through the characters of this narrative. Human actions in the Book of Esther serve as the litmus test for overcoming evil and injustice.
The Leadership Challenge: Mordecai’s extraordinary, personalized challenge to his niece, Esther, to act on behalf of her community reminds us of the power of words and the sanctity of relationships.
Acting from the Outside In: Esther performs her critical, yet essential, leadership function, doing so while violating the cultural norms and social rituals of the monarchy. The power of chutzpah trumps the accepted palace standards of conduct. Operating as a contrarian, challenging the existing practices established by the king, Esther will make her case on behalf of her people.
Symbolic Leadership: The Book of Esther offers an array of symbolic action statements, just as it provides a roadmap of leadership profiles. On the one hand, this text is rich with images of false claims of power and bravado, while on the other simple but profound acts of disobedience will ultimately change the course of this narrative and its messaging. Heroes in this context are judged by their willfulness to disrupt the status quo.
Timing is Everything: The drama that is the Book of Esther represents a story of palace intrigue. When do you confront the evil Haman and how ought he, the regent of the crown, be punished? As with any great adventure, the intervention must occur at preciously the correct moment if we are to prevent any danger to Mordecai, Esther and the Jews. The public telling of the story serves as a powerful reminder that we must always be reminded of the plot, the characters, and the potential outcomes. The public oration of the story provides for theater as well as offers us a political statement. As the story unfolds, the lead characters are both hailed and rebuked by the audience as a creative device, important in literature but essential in life, to call out those who seek to do us ill while always acknowledging the “good people” who are prepared to risk their personal safety for the welfare of the community.
Purim embraces the Jewish imperative of social disruption, challenging leaders and questioning the public order, when both are seen as corrupted.
What value do religious texts provide? Indeed, they offer insights into the human condition, and more directly as with the Book of Esther, the capacity to change the existing culture, the opportunity to celebrate individuals for their heroic leadership, and in the end, the possibility to see in such a narrative, particular meanings for our own time and place!
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.