Thursday, March 24, 2005

Cheers for Esther

Tonight begins the Jewish feast of Purim, one of the most joyous of holidays, commemorating an ancient deliverance of the Jewish people from near extermination. The story is found in the Book of Esther, and it tells of civil disobedience, religious persecution, and courageous action. The 30-second summary: Esther is the king's favorite wife, but he does not know that she is a Jew. The king is deceived by an arrogant advisor to decree the extermination of all Jews in his empire, because "they keep their own laws and do not obey the king." (The arrogant advisor was just annoyed that a Jew refused to bow down to him when ordered.) Esther, at risk to her own life, pleads with the king to save her people, in the process revealing that she is Jewish. The king realizes the right thing to do, revokes the decree, and exterminates the arrogant advisor instead.

The most important thing to do today is to read the Book of Esther. "The whole megillah" (the whole scroll), as they say. It's not too long, and ideally it should be read out loud with everyone raucously cheering Mordecai (the guy who wouldn't bow down) and booing, stomping and hissing for Haman (the arrogant advisor). It's also a commandment that there should be eating, drinking, and making merry. In fact, it is traditional to get drunk enough that you can no longer tell the good guy from the bad guy. (So watch out for drunken orthodox Jews stumbling the streets tonight.) It is also traditional to bring little gifts of food to your neighbors or to the poor.

Some trivia about the Book of Esther: there is the original Hebrew version, but there is also a somewhat later Greek version that has a bunch of extra verses added. (Sort of the like when you buy the DVD and you get some extra scenes that weren't in the original screen version.) The Catholics accept the extra verses as inspired, and include them in their Bibles, but some Protestant translations (and of course the Jewish versions) stick to the original Hebrew. If you stick to the Hebrew and don't accept the extra verses, then Esther is the only book in the Bible that contains no mention of G-d. (Some rabbis say this is to teach that G-d sometimes works behind the scenes.)

Whether you're Jewish or not, whether you believe in G-d or not, the story of Esther is a great story of standing firm for what you believe, being true to who you are, and having the courage of your convictions. So raise a glass for Esther today!

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