A central purpose of Purim is to party! The celebration of Purim is replete with food, drink, noise, laughter, costumes, decorations, and general merriment. Everything is, as it were, turned upside-down. Even the decorum of the synagogue service is disturbed with boos, cheers and stomping of feet during the reading of the scroll of Esther. Jokes are played and even the Rabbi and other dignitaries are made fun of. What is going on here? To find the answer we need to turn to the basis for the holiday itself, the biblical book of Esther. Wait… maybe we first should examine the nature of a party, and why there might be some resistance to all this fun and exuberance in connection with godly matters!
Q: Is a party spiritual?
Essentially, a party presents the opportunity to relax and to play. The importance of play is recognized in the development of the health and well-being of the offspring of people and animals alike. Play is the most natural thing for a child, as well as, for example, a puppy and a bear cub. Adults seem to lose this natural playfulness and can become somber and cheerless or, without God, turn to their own superficial and often destructive forms of “play”. In describing play, author Samuel Wells writes,
“The beauty of play is that it is not ‘purposeful, productive, efficient, economical, measured, effective or strategic’ – all the useful, grown-up things we have to be in the workplace every day. Instead it’s ‘exuberant, passionate, joyful, reckless, wholehearted and unselfconscious’ – all the childlike things we really need to be from time to time.”* He adds, “Play is a corrective to any solemn Gospel that seeks to make disciples more earnest than God.”
Michele Guinness playfully paraphrases Rabbi Yeshua’s exhortation to become childlike as follows: “Unless you become like a little child… you’ll never appreciate the most wonderful, magical things in life. You’ll never allow your imagination to run riot, giving you a glimpse into the glories of the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 18:3).** I would similarly interpret the next verse: “Whoever keeps himself unselfconscious, free of pride and prejudice, transparent and curious like this child, is highly favored, lifted up and smiled upon by our Father in Heaven” (18:4).
An account in the book of Nehemiah sets a wonderful precedent for joyful celebration and the dispelling of sadness on any festive day. At the rededication of the Second Temple the assembled Israelites are powerfully moved to tears of repentance at the reading of the Torah recovered by Ezra the scribe. Nehemiah, as governor, tells them to dry their tears and to go home and celebrate: “Go your way, eat choice food and drink sweet wine, and send portions (mishloa’ach manot) to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). We read in verse 12, “Then all the people went to eat and drink and to send portions. They had a big, joyful celebration (simcha) because they understood the words that had been explained to them.”
Simcha is the Hebrew word for joy that is communally shared; a shared outpouring of thanksgiving and gladness. Today, for example, a Jewish bar/bat-mitzvah party or a wedding is described as a simcha. It is no coincidence that the first miracle performed by Yeshua was at a simcha, a wedding celebration. He changed the water into wine, the latter being a symbol of simcha, communal joy. E.g., “Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life” (Ecclesiastes 10:19). The Bridegroom was present and it was time to rejoice!
Another special simcha, which falls in the month of Tishrei, is Simchat Torah (The Joy of Torah) that marks the conclusion of “The Feast” – the Feast of Tabernacles. It also is the day upon which the annual cycle of reading through the Torah is completed. On Simchat Torah, during the synagogue service and at special gatherings in parks and halls, the Torah scrolls are paraded with great ceremony among the gathered people who kiss and embrace them. Rabbis dance with the scrolls and there is a joyous expression of love for the precious Word of God. During the darkest days of Auschwitz some of the Jewish captives chose to dance on Simchat Torah, just as they would have in the synagogue. Elie Wiesel, author and Holocaust survivor, wrote: “For them the commandment to ‘rejoice on your festivals’ was an impossible commandment to observe – but observe it they did.”***
No matter our circumstances or how we feel, the festivals remind us that God is on the Throne. He is in control and the future and all eternity are in His hands. To celebrate now is a prophetic foretaste of the eternal joy we will know in His Presence. We are reminded of the future reality in which we are now able to participate. In the Lord, who is the Author and Finisher of all things, we have forgiveness of our bad choices in the past, new life in the present, and the freedom to press on in faith and hope for the future. That is reason to celebrate!
The ‘Wet Blanket’ Amalek!
Every party has its “party pooper”, one whose attitude throws a ‘wet blanket’ over the life and enjoyment of the proceedings. This antagonist to the ‘party’ of God is Amalek – the eternal enemy of the God of Israel. Amalek was a grandson of Esau (Genesis 36:12). His first attack against the people of Israel occurred as they traveled through the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt.
Joshua led the battle in the valley below while Moses held aloft the rod of God, aided by Aaron and Hur. After the Israelites gained the victory, the Lord said to Moses: “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Exodus 17:14). Moses knew this would not happen immediately but that it was a prophetic promise for the end of days, and he proclaimed, “The Lord, YHVH, will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (17:16). This is a blessed assurance that the battle is the Lord’s. He will achieve the ultimate vindication and victory. In the end, Amalek will face destruction.
The prophet Zechariah records that on that final day, “…the Lord, YHVH, will become King over all the earth; on that day YHVH will be one and His Name one” (14:9). Through King Messiah, all peoples will come into the light of God’s Kingdom; except the descendents of Amalek. The Sages of Israel describe that the essence of Amalek is scoffing and derision, a cold cynicism. While others can repent and turn to the One true God, he is incapable of repentance and correction and will be totally destroyed. Rabbi Pinchas Stolper explains: “Nothing, not even his own destruction, can correct Amalek because he is impervious to change. …The reason for this is that to a cynic nothing has significance. There are no values or goals of importance. Admonition has no effect on the cynical scoffer who has a false concept of the world.”****
The cynic consistently denigrates the true and important biblical values, including the value of life itself. Proverbs 9:8 warns, “Do not attempt to admonish a cynical scoffer.” It will have no effect and will only draw forth more ridicule.
As the focus of Amalek’s mockery and violent anger is directed toward the God of Israel, whom he cannot touch, the targets of his attacks are those closest to Him, His people. History has clearly revealed the distinguishing feature of Amalek – Anti-Semitism. Every generation has its Amalek, with its unquenchable hatred of the God of Israel and its deluded determination to deride and destroy His people. The Inquisitors, the Crusaders, the Hamans, Hitlers and Arafats, Hamas and ISIS are all outright and obvious in their murderous intentions. In his cool cynicism, however, underlying the raging physical attacks, Amalek has a more subtle, spiritual strategy. His primary objective is to weaken the devotion of God’s people to His Word; to undermine the foundation of Torah and to belittle its beauty, relevance and importance. This leads to a “letting go” of God’s Word, a resultant weakening and distortion of the meaning of covenant relationship, and eventually to spiritual cynicism and indifference and a turning away from God Himself. Amalek gains the victory! When, however, the hearts of His people remain strong in faith and secure in loving relationship with our Father God, then His words and teaching always appear new and fresh and vital. When we have the Living Word written in our hearts by the ‘finger’ of God, His Spirit, we draw hope and life from the Word and when we walk in righteousness, peace and joy day by day, Amalek is defeated!
Parties and Plots!
Back to the story of Esther. The biblical book, or scroll (megillah) of Esther is set in ancient Persia, a great kingdom that stretched from India to Ethiopia. It relates the story of the victory of the Jews, through our heroes Mordechai and his niece and adopted daughter, Esther (or Hadassah, her original Hebrew name), over the villain Haman. Haman, a descendent of Amalek, is grand vizier in the court of King Achashverosh, also spelled Ahasuerus. (In Hebrew his name can be read as chash be’rosh, which means straw in the head!).
The story of Queen Esther begins and ends with a party; in fact it is punctuated with parties throughout. These are interwoven with plots and counterplots, mystery and mayhem, which makes for intriguing reading.
The first party described lasts one hundred and eighty days. It is celebrated throughout the kingdom to commemorate his third year of reign, and Achasverosh shows off “…the riches of his royal glory and the splendor and pomp of his majesty” (1:4). Immediately this is over, he hosts another party in his capital of Susa. It is a lavish affair “…for both great and small, a banquet lasting for seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace” (1:5). There is great fun and merriment until the queen, Vashti, refuses her husband’s order to dance before the drunken revelers and she is banished for her disobedience. A program is launched to find the most beautiful maiden in the land who will be crowned the new queen. In what resembles an extravagant and extended beauty contest, our heroine Hadassah-Esther is chosen. Her only relative and protector, the wise Mordechai, advises her to continue to conceal her Jewish identity. There is an Amalek in the court. Haman, second only to the King, who proudly commands that all bow down in his presence. Mordechai refuses to do so, for Jews prostrate themselves only before God. In his fury, Haman convinces the King to sign a decree calling for a massacre of all the Jews in his kingdom. Mordechai and Esther must do something to counteract the decree and save their people! He points out to her that God has placed her in the palace “for a time such as this” (4:14). What can our brave queen do? Knowing her husband’s predilection, she plans a party! To present him with the invitation, however, she must enter his presence uninvited, which can mean death.
Esther sends word and calls for all the Jews to fast with her and her maidens for three days, interceding before God for success in the venture. On the day, she prepares herself and she approaches him with the thought, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish,Iperish”(4:16). Achashverosh, however, is delighted to see his beautiful queen and happily accepts her invitation to a banquet to be held that evening for himself and…Haman.
A wonderful banquet is prepared and she wines and dines them. When the king asks her to state any request she might have, up to half his kingdom, Esther simply replies, “ Let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the dinner which I will prepare for them, and tomorrow I will do as the king has said” (5:8). Haman rushes home to boast to his family and friends about his high position and favor with the royal couple, but complains that his irritation at Mordechai, whom he saw sitting outside the palace gate in sackcloth and ashes, overshadows it all. His wife and friends suggest he build a huge gallows that very night and arrange to have Mordechai hanged; then he would be free to enjoy the second royal banquet.
The plot now thickens! The king also is unable to sleep and calls for the chronicles, the book of memorable deeds, to be read before him. An account is read of how, in the past, Mordechai had successfully uncovered an assassination plot against the king by two of his guards. When asked what had been done to reward and honor Mordechai, the reader responds that nothing had been done. It seems a certain Haman had taken all the credit for himself! It just so happens that at that point Haman arrives to try and persuade the king to have Mordechai hanged the next day.
The king asks him, “What shall be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?” And Haman said to himself, “Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?” and Haman said to the king, “For the man whom the king delights to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and the horse which the king has ridden, and on whose head a royal crown is set; and let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble princes; let him array the man whom the king delights to honor, and let him conduct the man on horseback through the open square of the city, proclaiming before him: “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.” Then the king said to Haman, “Make haste, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to Mordecai the Jew who sits at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned” (6:6-10).
And thus, the next morning we see the abject Haman leading a resplendently robed and crowned Mordechai on a king’s horse through the city, calling out, “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.”
But, that is not the end of the story for the decree to massacre the Jews still stands. Fast forward to the evening banquet… Queen Esther, the king and a heavy-hearted Haman are drinking wine when the king again asks for her request. This time she replies: “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to be annihilated.” The king is shocked and asks who would do such a thing. The now terrified perpetrator is right there, and Esther indicates, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” The tables are turned and, by the king’s order, Haman is hanged on his own gallows! The king promotes Mordechai to Haman’s position of grand vizier and gives him his signet ring. The decree cannot be annulled, but Mordechai now has the authority, with the approval of the king, to issue a second decree enabling the Jews of every city and village to prepare and arm themselves. On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, of Adar, they were permitted to fight back against any armed force that had been instructed to attack them. They did so with great success, for many had heard the account of Haman and were in awe of the Jews. Indeed, the Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor (8:16).
Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Achashverosh, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same, year by year, as the days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending choice portions (mishloach manot) to one another and gifts to the poor (matanot la’ev’yonim) (9:20-22).
“The Jews ordained and took it upon themselves and their descendants and all who joined them, that without fail they would keep these two days according to what was written and at the time appointed every year, that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every family, province, and city, and that these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants” (9:27-28). The command of Queen Esther fixed these practices of Purim, and it was recorded in writing (9:32).
We can trust that the kingdom enjoyed great unity and blessing under the governance of Mordechai, who now was next in rank to the king, for we are told that “he sought the welfare of his people and spoke peace to all his people” (10:3). When things are in order and beautiful, we rejoice as we see the Kingdom of God being established in the earth. And when things seem confused and hopeless, God finds a way to tell us: “I am with you, as I have been all along. I will always be here for you. Choose in faith to see Me in all circumstances, and let your heart be filled with joy and peace.”
Interestingly, the name of God is not directly mentioned in the book of Esther. We are, however, strongly aware of His Presence “behind the scenes” as it were. This is the miracle and the message of Purim. It is found hidden in the midst of the confusion and noise in the world. It is the “hidden” face of God, the radiant light of His constant Presence that is with us no matter how dark the circumstances; the reality that He is our hope, our protection and shield, our Redeemer through it all. Now and forever. Amen.
~Keren Hannah Pryor
Endnotes: All pictures, besides the end one, from Shutterstock.com
* Samuel Wells, God’s Companions: Re-imagining Christian Ethics, Blackwell Publishing, 2006; 93
** Michele Guinness, The Heavenly Party, Monarch Books, Oxford, UK, 2007; 67
*** Ibid. 70
**** Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, Living Beyond Time, Shaar Press, Mesorah Publications Ltd., NY, 2003; 269