Religion & Beliefs
As Purim approaches, my thoughts turn to the various themes in the book of Esther: the hiddenness of God in our lives, the masks we wear, how we hide from God and God hides from us, and how life … Read More
As Purim approaches, my thoughts turn to the various themes in the book of Esther: the hiddenness of God in our lives, the masks we wear, how we hide from God and God hides from us, and how life is a topsy-turvy undertaking wherein what is right can also be wrong. However, even while I am completely engaged in these philosophical and religious themes, year after year, I inevitably find myself stopped short in chapter 2 by the brief description of Esther’s preparation before meeting the king: "at the end of the twelve months’ treatment prescribed for women (for that was the period spent on beautifying them: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and women’s cosmetics, and it was after that that the girl would go to the king)…"
I find that spending one year primping in the bathroom is at least as shocking as the genocide described in the book of Esther or the fact that God’s name doesn’t even appear in this Biblical book. What was Esther doing? Did she have some bodily bits that I don’t have? Was she plucking every hair individually on her body? Was there an ancient moisturizer that required months of immersion? Oh, I know that it was a hot country and people smelled and these perfumes helped to mask the odors, and then there were the hands and feet that needed to be hennaed, and the eyes that had to be enhanced, and various pastes put on the body to get rid of spots and blemishes, and undoubtedly the whole thing was tied up in some kind of purification ritual but still…one year? As committed as I am to beauty products and to maintaining soft, supple skin (and I unabashedly admit it), even I have my limits, and one year is well past the outer reaches of my capabilities.
I’m tempted to pontificate that this says something about women, and their historical urge to please men, and all that. Which, of course, it does, so I guess I’ll just say that. However, this book is famous for its point/counterpoint, and there is one woman in the book of Esther who refuses to please the king. Queen Vashti was de-queened when the king called for her to appear before his drunken guests wearing only the royal diadem. When she doesn’t obey, one of the king’s advisors warns the king that Vashti "has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the peoples in the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands…and there will be no end of scorn and provocation!" So the king, who throughout the book is half looped and is manipulated by one or the other in his court, initiates the "Who Wants to Be the Queen?" contest, and gathers together the most beautiful virgins in the country to compete for Miss Persia. Esther is befriended by Hegai, one of the eunuchs who "furnishes her with her cosmetics and treats her and her maids with special kindness", (I can’t help but see Esther as being groomed by some gay guy with a great eye), and Esther, who does what she is told unlike Vashti, becomes the king’s favorite. The diadem is transferred to her head.
It’s impossible to know how much of the story is historically accurate, but according to various other, non-Biblical texts that date back 3,000 plus years, the royal wives spent a lo-ong time applying make-up and perfume before meeting the king. So it’s entirely possible that these harem girls were duking it out for a year, so to speak, in the hopes of being the lucky one to be pricked by the king. I can imagine that it was not simply because the king was a big prize. It’s also that the alternative – being stuck forever in the harem with the eunuchs and the other rejected concubines – was not something a girl looked forward to.
Fast forward 2500 years to the Upper West Side of Manhattan and some things never change. Or, they change but not so much. By that I don’t mean to suggest that anyone here is in possession of a harem, but there are certainly a lot of single, Jewish men and women wandering around looking for their "beschert", the one who is fated for them. To that end, women (not all, but many) are getting their hair blown out straight, whitening their teeth, plucking eyebrows, shaving legs, waxing the "bikini" area, rubbing on nice-smelling moisturizers after showering, spritzing themselves with perfume, putting on make-up, getting a manicure and pedicure – and that’s just on Friday afternoon before shabbos! I won’t go so far as to say that women are masking who they are, but they are certainly doing whatever it takes to beat out all the other contenders. Again, who wants to be left in that dating pool with the eunuchs? A girl can’t leave it all up to beschert - God needs a partner to help out, too.
For some women, Purim is a story of female empowerment: Queen Vashti has the courage to refuse to appear before the king, and Queen Esther ultimately summons up the courage to reveal herself as a Jew and to appear before the king without being summoned (which could have gotten her killed) thereby saving the Jewish people from the genocide that’s being planned. The book is filled with these reversals: the same words or actions might save you or ruin you. Other women view the story as one in which women basically have no power and have to compete with one another for a man, using sex appeal, sneakiness and a year of personal upkeep to get what they want. (And the problem with that is?)
Both perspectives undoubtedly have merit, and I’m not sure they’re mutually exclusive – just two sides of the same female face. It should be noted, though, that men don’t come across so well in the book either: the king is an idiot, Haman is evil and petty, Mordechai is perhaps the nice Jewish guy that every girl should aspire to, even though he whines a bit and pimps out his niece Esther to the king, and the eunuchs are conniving. Then there’s the character who is not mentioned at all: the elusive, ever-present yet unseen and unnamed God whose face is hidden behind the mask of seeming fate.
The word "Purim" embodies the whole notion of fate and arbitrariness. "Purim" means "lots", referring to how the evil Haman cast lots to choose the date on which to execute the Jews. In the ultimate reversal of fate, instead of that lot being the date on which the Jews will die, it turns out to be the day on which the enemies of the Jews die. (I really hate this part, actually.) In this sense, the book of Esther tells the story of what is truly beschert in the original meaning of the word beschert. Even when it isn’t readily apparent, some things are beschert, not fated but "brought about by heaven, blessed with." Seeking their beschert, Esther and the King, and men and women since continue to do their part – soak in oil, host a Purim party – in order to help God, our unseen partner.