A Strange Holiday

The biblical Queen Esther

As I have mentioned in others posts (Time Traveling in Toronto and Make Someone Happy), I’ve gone on a serious Being Erica bender, watching a season and a half of one-hour episodes in marathon fashion. But while I have been engrossed with the life of the series’ eponymous character, Erica Strange, I have also been thinking about the story of another young woman whose name starts with the same letter as that of my favorite fictional time traveling psychotherapy patient (I guess the use of “fictional” is redundant here, right?). This other young woman does not have her name appearing in a television show title, but she does have a book in the Bible named after her. It is Esther, of course, who is on my mind as the holiday of Purim is almost upon us.

As my colleague Maya Bernstein, has written in a great piece for ejewishphilanthropy.com, Purim is a holiday of reversals. She cites chapter 9 verse 1 of the Book of Esther, which is read in the synagogue from a scroll twice during the day-long holiday: “Now in the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, on the thirteenth day of the same, when the king’s commandment and his decree drew near to be put in execution, in the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to have rule over them; whereas it was turned to the contrary, that the Jews had rule over them that hated them.” She goes on to explain that the concept of “venahafoch hu,” of things being turned on their head, is at the core of the holiday’s meaning.

“On Purim, then, we are not simply acknowledging that despair can turn to joyous exaltation. That is merely the tip of the Purim iceberg. The holiday, in fact, is intensely sobering. It reminds us that the world is spinning beyond our control, and, despite what we think, we cannot predict its direction, nor can we be certain that it won’t spin into a state of total destruction. This, perhaps, is why joy must be dictated during this month:mishenichnas Adar marbim be’simcha – when the month of Adar arrives we abound in joy (Talmud Megillah 29a) – because it is counter-intuitive to face the notion of ‘venahafoch hu’ and to celebrate,” writes Bernstein.

Dressing in costume and merrymaking are part of the holiday, as seen here in a painting by Mayer Kirshenblatt of his childhood memories of Purim in Poland.

Indeed, the idea that things are beyond our control is very central to Purim, but also present in the Book of Esther is the notion that individuals make choices and that those choices have consequences that can affect the course of events. It is not surprising, then, that God does not appear in the Book of Esther. The only possible reference to the Almighty is when Mordechai urges his niece Esther to go to King Achashverosh to plead on behalf of her fellow Jews (and thus reveal her true identity and risk her own life): “For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but thou and thy father’s house will perish; and who knoweth whether thou art not come to royal estate for such a time as this?” (4:14). “Another place” is “mimakom acher,” with “hamakom” (the place) being a term used in some cases when referring to God.

Unlike in other biblical books in which God takes center stage, issuing commands, calling the shots and pulling the strings, God is basically AWOL in the story of Esther. Some might argue that God is merely hidden, but even so, such a presence pales in comparison to God’s usual portrayal. I take this to mean that what is intended to be learned from this particular book is that it is not enough to merely rejoice in the face of the randomness of life, the overarching plan that many believe that only God knows and humans simply cannot fully fathom. We must choose to act despite the overwhelming number of things over which we cannot exert control. It takes a leap of faith to make choices without knowing whether they will ultimately be the right ones. Remaining paralyzed is not an option, for if we elect to throw up our hands and do nothing, we ignore our God-given abilities and forfeit our opportunity to effect change in the world.

Being Erica's Erica Strange as played by Erin Karpluk

Esther responds to her uncle’s desperate request with, “…and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish” (4:16). Most of us are not confronted with life or death choices like this, but we are all faced with ones that are important – if not to an entire people, then at least to us, our family and friends. And this is where Erica Strange comes in. Though not quite in the same league as Queen Esther, she is nonetheless a Jewish heroine…at least of a Canadian television series. We may not publicly read from a scroll the lines written for her character, but they are worth remembering and reminding ourselves of from time to time: “Everyone’s got their own path…However you do it, the fact is, the path you’re on, the choices you make, define who you are. Choices. They’re the building blocks or our lives, they shape our past, present and future. And despite all the mistakes I’ve made, every new day brings with it new choices and their whole new world of possibilities.” (From season 1, episode 2: “What I Am Is What I Am.”)

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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