Code Name: Esther

The Biblical narrative of Purim is a tightly-knit story of political intrigue which is set during the reign of Ahashveros (Xerxes).  Ahashveros is a weak and insecure individual who is incapable of making decisions on his own. Because he seeks approval, he devises a silly plan for increasing his approval ratings among his people. The plan is to hold a national drinking fest that was scheduled to last 180 days. During this event, when Ahashveros was obviously drunk he called for his queen. But, Vashti was herself presiding over a state banquet. Foolishly he interprets her refusal to summarily appear before him as a challenge to his authority. No doubt Vashti realized that Ahashveros simply wanted to show her off as some sort of eye candy. In the words of one Talmudic sage, Ahashveros treated Vashti as a "vessel" or instrument for his personal pleasure.

Weak men are easily controlled and Ahashveros becomes the pawn of Haman. Haman represents a type of Jew-hater familiar to all of us. Many Jews remember how Roosevelt refused to help the Jews either by giving sanctuary, threatening Germany with reprisals or just bombing trains and extermination camps. Unlike America's "Jews of silence", Persia's Jewish leader acted courageously and decisively. He demonstrated boldly in front of the palace and attracted public attention.

Mordecai acts with brilliance and audacity. He enlists his niece Hadassa because she is both intelligent and attractive. She will need to use both attributes. Her mission is to attract and seduce the royal nebbish because everyone knew that Ahashveros could be manipulated.  For obvious reasons a Jewish woman would hardly succeed.  Mordecai and Hadassa could not approach the king in a forthright manner.  Therefore, the only alternative was a covert operation. Mordecai risks his life for his values. He instructs Hadassa to conceal her identity and to enter the palace as a secret agent codenamed Esther.  Rabbi Nehemia explains the selection of the Persian name Esther by tracing its derivation from Ishtar the pagan goddess (Megilah 13A).

The plot would have made an exciting movie. And like all good fiction it is real, if not factual.  The Book of Esther challenges our most basic values such as chastity, decency and loyalty.  It reaffirms the higher principle of survival. More than this, the Bible is a book about our own lives and as Rashi once said if we look deeply enough we shall find everything in its words. 

The Esther plan was utilized centuries later by Israeli intelligence. In 1966 the Mossad learned that Iraq was supplied with the Soviet MIG 21. Anticipating a war in which Israeli pilots would have to deal with this aircraft, the Mossad enlisted a young woman. Her mission was to meet, seduce and blackmail an Iraqi pilot. Several months later, US Defense department officials were invited to inspect the MIG 21. More importantly every Israeli pilot was taught the strengths and weaknesses of the MIG 21.  The daring of this modern Esther paid off in the stunning air to air combat successes of the IAF in 1967.

The decision of the sages to include the Book of Esther in the canon of our sacred writings despite its indifference to theological language emphasizes its value.  The rabbis warn us not to rely upon miracles and therefore praying for a miracle in times of danger is bad policy. Instead, what is required of us is action based upon certain historically validated principles.

Israel will always be treated differently because it is supposed to be different. When we forget this, the world around us reminds us. We are not supposed to be like other nations; we are to be a light unto them. Israel's constitution proclaimed a nation under God. Our adherence must be to the covenant we believe to be sacred.  One fact has accompanied this principle. Nations that have abandoned these Biblical values have fallen into the archives of history. Israel herself has betrayed them and suffered a long and bloody exile. 

The Book of Esther addresses American Jewry today. There is a malaise enervating the American spirit.  A weak Israel betrays the Zionist vision of Jewish renewal and survival. A recent Hadassah magazine piece describes Israeli descendants of holocaust victims applying for German and Polish passports so that if it gets rough, they will have somewhere to go. Silly isn't it? People always manage to distort reality in order to protect themselves. The Iranians threaten us and we deny their intent.  We, forget that not everyone shares our rational worldview. Claude Levi Strauss, in The Savage Mind, points out that their mentality and their view of history are mythic and magical.  Be assured they are more devoted to Paradise than to coexistence.

Soon Jews will gather in synagogues as their rabbis open the scroll of Esther. It is customary that when the name Haman is read, noisemakers drown out his name. This year I suggest that when our rabbis read the name of Haman, we listen carefully to its articulation and in that quiet reflection ask ourselves if any of us have seen him or someone like him lately?
The Biblical narrative of Purim is a tightly-knit story of political intrigue which is set during the reign of Ahashveros (Xerxes).  Ahashveros is a weak and insecure individual who is incapable of making decisions on his own. Because he seeks approval, he devises a silly plan for increasing his approval ratings among his people. The plan is to hold a national drinking fest that was scheduled to last 180 days. During this event, when Ahashveros was obviously drunk he called for his queen. But, Vashti was herself presiding over a state banquet. Foolishly he interprets her refusal to summarily appear before him as a challenge to his authority. No doubt Vashti realized that Ahashveros simply wanted to show her off as some sort of eye candy. In the words of one Talmudic sage, Ahashveros treated Vashti as a "vessel" or instrument for his personal pleasure.

Weak men are easily controlled and Ahashveros becomes the pawn of Haman. Haman represents a type of Jew-hater familiar to all of us. Many Jews remember how Roosevelt refused to help the Jews either by giving sanctuary, threatening Germany with reprisals or just bombing trains and extermination camps. Unlike America's "Jews of silence", Persia's Jewish leader acted courageously and decisively. He demonstrated boldly in front of the palace and attracted public attention.

Mordecai acts with brilliance and audacity. He enlists his niece Hadassa because she is both intelligent and attractive. She will need to use both attributes. Her mission is to attract and seduce the royal nebbish because everyone knew that Ahashveros could be manipulated.  For obvious reasons a Jewish woman would hardly succeed.  Mordecai and Hadassa could not approach the king in a forthright manner.  Therefore, the only alternative was a covert operation. Mordecai risks his life for his values. He instructs Hadassa to conceal her identity and to enter the palace as a secret agent codenamed Esther.  Rabbi Nehemia explains the selection of the Persian name Esther by tracing its derivation from Ishtar the pagan goddess (Megilah 13A).

The plot would have made an exciting movie. And like all good fiction it is real, if not factual.  The Book of Esther challenges our most basic values such as chastity, decency and loyalty.  It reaffirms the higher principle of survival. More than this, the Bible is a book about our own lives and as Rashi once said if we look deeply enough we shall find everything in its words. 

The Esther plan was utilized centuries later by Israeli intelligence. In 1966 the Mossad learned that Iraq was supplied with the Soviet MIG 21. Anticipating a war in which Israeli pilots would have to deal with this aircraft, the Mossad enlisted a young woman. Her mission was to meet, seduce and blackmail an Iraqi pilot. Several months later, US Defense department officials were invited to inspect the MIG 21. More importantly every Israeli pilot was taught the strengths and weaknesses of the MIG 21.  The daring of this modern Esther paid off in the stunning air to air combat successes of the IAF in 1967.

The decision of the sages to include the Book of Esther in the canon of our sacred writings despite its indifference to theological language emphasizes its value.  The rabbis warn us not to rely upon miracles and therefore praying for a miracle in times of danger is bad policy. Instead, what is required of us is action based upon certain historically validated principles.

Israel will always be treated differently because it is supposed to be different. When we forget this, the world around us reminds us. We are not supposed to be like other nations; we are to be a light unto them. Israel's constitution proclaimed a nation under God. Our adherence must be to the covenant we believe to be sacred.  One fact has accompanied this principle. Nations that have abandoned these Biblical values have fallen into the archives of history. Israel herself has betrayed them and suffered a long and bloody exile. 

The Book of Esther addresses American Jewry today. There is a malaise enervating the American spirit.  A weak Israel betrays the Zionist vision of Jewish renewal and survival. A recent Hadassah magazine piece describes Israeli descendants of holocaust victims applying for German and Polish passports so that if it gets rough, they will have somewhere to go. Silly isn't it? People always manage to distort reality in order to protect themselves. The Iranians threaten us and we deny their intent.  We, forget that not everyone shares our rational worldview. Claude Levi Strauss, in The Savage Mind, points out that their mentality and their view of history are mythic and magical.  Be assured they are more devoted to Paradise than to coexistence.

Soon Jews will gather in synagogues as their rabbis open the scroll of Esther. It is customary that when the name Haman is read, noisemakers drown out his name. This year I suggest that when our rabbis read the name of Haman, we listen carefully to its articulation and in that quiet reflection ask ourselves if any of us have seen him or someone like him lately?