Do you know how the Story of Esther ends? Not with the hanging of Haman, despite what the children’s song says: “He ordered Haman to take a little swing, in Shu-Shu-Shu long ago.” We don’t often read Chapters 9 and 10 of the Book of Esther, the last chapters of the Megillah. We read the stories of the feasting and the drinking, of the “beauty pageant” and the fancy clothes. We celebrate and reenact these with our children. But we avoid the closing chapters of the book. There’s a good reason for that.
In Esther 9 and 10, Ahasuerus gives the Jews the power to “defend” themselves against Haman’s forces, and they do.
“… the Jews got their enemies in their power. Throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, the Jews mustered in their cities to attack those who sought their hurt; and no one could withstand them, for the fear of them had fallen upon all the peoples. Indeed, all the officials of the provinces—the satraps, the governors, and the king’s stewards—showed deference to the Jews, because the fear of Mordecai had fallen upon them. For Mordecai was now powerful in the royal palace, and his fame was spreading through all the provinces; the man Mordecai was growing ever more powerful.
So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies. In the fortress Shushan the Jews killed a total of five hundred men. They also killed Parshandatha, Dalphon, Aspatha, Poratha, Adalia, Aridatha, Parmashta, Arisai, Aridai, and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman son of Hammedatha, the foe of the Jews” (Esther 1-10).
The Jews fight back within Shushan, and across the vast kingdom. It’s a bloodbath.
Why don’t we read the end of the story? It paints us in a very bad light. It eliminates our sense of moral superiority. It doesn’t match our image of ourselves.
But I think there’s another reason, too. We all seek to avoid death. We speak about it in hushed tones. We sweep death under the rugt, imagining we’ve banished it as Queen Vashti was banished. But death never goes away.
This Purim marks a year of Covid. Last year, we held our Carnival, our Spiel, our Costume Contest. The synagogue backyard was packed! Children squealed as they showed me their outfits, shouted as they jumped in the Bounce House, grinned greedily as they won prizes. Last year, we sipped sodas in the heat, listened to the Rural Street Klezmer Band, and thanked Carl Hermann and MOE for their grill work. That feels like a very long time ago.
I miss us. I miss our community’s bubbly energy and caring collaboration. I miss the delight we take in one another. I had no idea, last year, how precious it all was, and how soon it would be taken away from us.
The rabbis observe that God isn’t visible in the Book of Esther. In fact, God is never mentioned at all. Even so, they say, God is present like an unseen hand. God is hidden – hester, punning on the name of the Book.
So, too, we have found goodness hidden in this challenging time. We’re supporting one another as we’ve always aspired to do. We’re reading, cooking, walking, and biking more, commuting less. Grandparents from far away are Zooming into Bat/Bar Mitzvah services, and we’ve learned to appreciate what once we took for granted.
This year, we are being asked to confront what we’d rather hide away: the fragility of life, the ever-presence of pain, the disappointment of doing without. We are required, paradoxically, to peel away the masks that cover the realities of struggle, disappointment, illness, and death — even as we don masks of fabric.
No one likes this time, not with all the death and deprivation. But there is goodness here, hidden like God in the Book of Esther, if we will look for it.