Re-reading Esther

By Erica Brown

For many of us in Jewish nonprofits, our organizational calendar repeats certain milestones year after year: the start and stop of an annual campaign, a gala dinner, a memorial lecture, pre-holiday events. Sometimes this feels tedious – a predictable cycle – and, at other times it feels like a reassuring anchor in an ever-changing landscape. Jewish life generally is predicated on returning to the same ritual and stories year after year, the same holiday calendar, the same gatherings. What both share is that every year we bring a different self to these special annual markers.

This coming Purim is a good reminder of how our stories both age with us and change for us. Reading the biblical book of Esther as a child felt simple. There were good guys and bad guys, beauty pageants and ermine capes. It was a fantasy for the underdog, complete with cliffhangers and happy endings. It had the elements of every Jewish story I had ever read: an enemy who wanted to kill the Jews and a savior who wanted to save the Jews. As a child, I didn’t pay much attention to the plot. I cared about my princess costume, the cheap metal grogger I swung at Haman’s name and the sugar high from candy given out by well-meaning volunteers.

But as an adult, I notice much more in Esther that is unsettling, much the way Anne Fadiman introduces her anthology Rereadings with a description of reading a C.S. Lewis classic to her 8-year old son. For the first time, she noticed characterizations of race and gender that disturbed her, images that she hadn’t paid attention to when reading it as a young girl. When she mentioned these elements to her son, he asked if they could just continue reading. He didn’t care. He was just interested in the story. This, she contends, is the difference between reading and rereading. “The former,” she writes, “shut out the world in order to focus on the story; the latter dragged in the world in order to assess the story.”

Today, when I drag in the world to assess the Book of Esther, I dredge up a lot of contemporary dirt that appears in ancient guises in the scroll. There is an outsized, outlandish, paranoid leader of excessive tastes, poor, fickle judgement and an insatiable sexual appetite. There are atonal ministers who act in their own best political interests. There is a second harem that would make supporters of the #MeToo movement blush. There is a heavy, dysfunctional bureaucratic apparatus, from inflexible protocols to a vast postal service that is so slow. Proclamations are overturned before they are completely delivered. And, of course, there are the seeds of antisemitism, planted in Haman’s complaint: “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” Rashi, an eleventh century medieval commentary explains what toleration means here: Jews should not be tolerated because they provide no profit. And if there’s no profit, there’s ostensibly no reason a people should continue living.

I missed all of these cynical, monstrous themes as a child. I only had eyes for wonder. I cannot remember what age I was when the harsher, unseemly sides of the story became unavoidable. When did I first notice that the women who lost the beauty pageant were never sent home to their families but locked in the prison of Ahasuerus’s harem forever? It took me even longer to understand that although Esther was queen, she was hardly the only one to warm the king’s bed. He had not called her for thirty days because he had a stable of desirable women to entertain him nightly. Maybe his favorite queen was no longer the favorite a few years later. Such things happen in the world of grown-ups.

When did I catch the subtle transition between chapters two and three, when Mordechai’s goodness and loyalty in foiling an assassination plot against the king were ignored while his nemesis, Haman, was rewarded one verse later with a promotion? As a child, I wouldn’t have picked up on this nor would I have shrugged dispassionately because such injustices are common; rewarding undeserving politicians is expected and normative.

Yes, books and holidays change for us because we change, and no, we can’t go back and un-see what we now see. These stories become bleaker and harder. But in the move from fantasy to reality, we also learn how to negotiate the complexities of a challenging adult world. Novelist Allegra Goodman observed that at some point in her multiple early readings of Pride and Prejudice, she tired of the social dramas around eligible bachelors and economically suitable matches. She put the book aside, likening it to her roommate’s break with a high school boyfriend. She was ready for something more sophisticated. It was only shortly after her mother’s death to cancer at 51, because her mother loved Pride and Prejudice,that she returned to it and saw it with an earlier childlike joy, no longer angry at the book for its cheerfulness: “A dark imagination is, perhaps, more appealing before you know anything about darkness.”

So how might we read the Megillah differently this year? For one, we might read it from an organizational standpoint. It reminds us as nonprofits…

  • To have mechanisms in place to combat sexual harassment, especially in hierarchal organizations where there may be greater risks for those in entry-level jobs.
  • To make sure there are checks and balances in place for our leadership because power corrupts and hurts.
  • To stand up to antisemitism in our midst, both when it’s overt and when it’s polite.
  • To look at the power structures in our organizations and keep inequities to a minimum.
  • To assess the levels of bureaucracy in our own organizations and consider ways to mainstream inefficient systems.
  • To make sure to reward those who are loyal and to remove those who are toxic.
  • To acknowledge that profits are important but they are not the only or most important way to evaluate our work.
  • To keep records of our story and find ways to share it.
  • To share the good with others, those who are friends and those who are strangers.
  • To celebrate our victories.
  • To use every celebration to leverage support for the most vulnerable.

Rereading Esther, as we do year after year, invites us to study its more difficult themes while holding tightly to our childlike astonishment. Purim is fun. It also needs to grow-up with us. Along with Purim’s new layer of grown-up themes come new adult responsibilities, especially for organizations.

Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at The George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. Her latest book is Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile (Now available at Amazon and Koren Publishers).