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A New Look at the Purim Story

March 8, 2012 By:
Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum
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Clearly the story of Purim ends well -- at least for the Jewish people. Near the end of the Megillah, Esther saves herself and our people through an act that is both honest and brave.

But what happens next? What of Esther and her relationship with King Ahasuerus after these last miracles recorded in the Bible, the miracle of Haman's demise and the Jewish people's survival in the Persian kingdom?
 
Several members of Jewish Women International's Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community tried to tackle that very question. Our new resource, Rethinking Purim: Women, Relationships & Jewish Text, is the product of our conversations and imaginations.
 
We didn't spend time wondering whether Esther could ever be truly happy; who, after all, can grasp what happiness is until it's gone? Instead we wondered if the intertwined stories of how Esther and her predecessor Vashti dealt with their difficult mate, King Ahasuerus, could shed light on the complicated matter of relationships in ways that could teach us about healthy ones.
 
The time for educating about safe and healthy relationships as destinations for all women and men is now. In this country and around the world, domestic and intimate partner violence, sexual assault and child abuse have reached epidemic proportions, according to many statistically reliable measures.
 
In some Jewish communities, access to a full range of services is still lacking and stigma still attaches to victims of domestic and sexual violence. This is true despite enormous strides in recognizing the seriousness and widespread nature of these problems.
 
Neither the commercial media, which inhabits so much of today's public space, nor our public leaders are leading us into a future characterized by safety, stability, inner strength and sustained health. Opportunities to share ideas about alternative ways of acting, relating and living in our time are very much needed, and we believe that Jewish texts can help provide those opportunities.
 
In our own conversations and close reading of various texts about Purim, several possible paths toward healthy relationships kept appearing. We focused on three: developing a strong "voice," cultivating the conscious use of self and striving for parity.
 
Esther provides a good example of someone who develops a strong voice, by which we mean she learns to develop both a positive self-identity as well as identification with something larger than herself; in this case the Jewish people.
 
In cultivating the "conscious use of self," we see another important path -- being deliberate in how we present ourselves and how we might best use our own physical and spiritual resources. Esther does this when she chooses to dress herself, as one of our commentators puts it, for a royal business meeting rather than for a seduction scene.
 
Esther not only has access to the right clothes but to something more -- a kind of inner at-homeness that enables her to make a plea to save the Jewish people -- almost literally -- in the dark.
 
Lastly we focus on a path toward health that we call striving for parity, a quality that is sorely lacking in both Vashti's and Esther's relationship with the king. Rather than promoting an abstract egalitarianism, we suggest paying attention to the ever-changing balance in the amount of power or status held by each partner in a relationship.
 
As social mores, societal expectations, economic realities and reproductive choices continue to shift for both women and men in our time, a new destination for intimate relationships is needed -- on Purim and throughout the year. As our interaction with these texts and the questions they prompt have done for us, we hope they will inspire you to help make your corner of the world a place of safer and healthier relationships. Remember, none of us needs a royal lifestyle to do this work for ourselves and one another; we need only aspire to having a heart like Esther's.
 
Rabbi Donna Kirshbaum, the lead author of Rethinking Purim, lives in Swarthmore and serves Reconstructionist Congregation String of Pearls in Princeton, N.J. The guide can be downloaded free from JWI's website at: www.jwi.org/purim.
 
 

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