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This blog is dedicated to the exploration of mystical wisdom and life experience. It seeks to penetrate beyond the shadows and surfaces of our physical reality to discover vistas of unfathomable depth, beauty and meaning. These mystical realms are closer than you might imagine, for they exist in every multifold aspect of the observed empiricial world, as they do within the consciousness of the observer. In the infinite silence and contracted light, within the ethereal mirage of every passing moment, the eternal search begins and ends...

Friday, 21 March 2008

On Lotteries, Adultery and Fragrant Herbs

The name of the Jewish holiday of Purim means "lottery". It refers to the lottery that the Persian vizier Haman, the antagonist of the story in the Book of Esther, conducted to determine the month for his nefarious campaign to eliminate the Jews of ancient Persia. In all other Jewish holidays the name follows the symbol of redemption: Pesach denotes God's passing over the homes of the Jews in Egypt during the plague of the first-born, the final blow leading to Israel's exodus; Sukkoth refers to the "clouds of glory" surrounding the Israelites during their sojourn in Sinai. Why does the Purim story use the term related to the catastrophe rather than one referring to the deliverance?

To understand this, one must go deeper than the literal level of the Torah and examine it through the lens of the Pardes ("the Orchard", an acronym for pshat, the simple meaning; remez, the hermeneutic; drash, the exegetical; and sod, the mystical.) In fact the Hebrew name for the Book of Esther is מגילת אסתר, Megilat Esther, which can also be read as 'revelation of the concealed'. There is much that is hidden behind the visible garment of the Purim story.

On the simple level is a story of political intrigue, which the text claims is also recorded in the chronicles of Persia, though this claim has no historical verification. King Achashverosh, who some commentators suggest is Xerxes, has a lavish banquet for his subjects of 127 nations. He asks his wife, Vashti, to appear before the guests in her royal crown, but she refuses. The Talmud fills in the reason for that refusal: she was asked to comeby her drunken husband wearing only the royal crown and nothing else. She is put to death for her disobedience. On the advice of his advisors virgins are gathered from all over Persia in a selection process for the next queen. The King finally selects Esther, the niece of Mordechai the Jew, as his consort, but Esther conceals her ethnicity. While Esther is in the royal palace, her uncle Mordechai uncovers a plot against the king's life. The king neglects to reward him for this act.

In the interim Haman seals a deal with the king to destroy a "certain people scattered about the kingdom", a people who adhere to "their own laws." Though he hates all Jews, he is particularly irked by Mordechai who refuses to bow down to him. Mordechai hears of the edict to instigate a Jewish massacre, determined in Haman's lottery to be this month of Adar in the Hebrew calendar. In a public display of mourning at the royal palace gate, he sends a message to Esther to intercede on behalf of her people; but she has not been called to the King's chambers in 40 days. To appear before him without being summoned can carry the penalty of death. She tells Mordechai to organise a three-day fast on the part of the Jews, after which she goes to the king. His feelings of love rekindled, the King allows her to enter his chambers by the "raising of the golden sceptre". He asks her what she desires ("up to half the kingdom and I will grant it to you"); all Esther requests is the company of the King and Haman at a special banquet she wants to hold. Accepting her invitation, they appear the next day at Esther's feast. Again, the King pleads to hear Esther's request. She invites them both to another banquet the following day. Haman is feeling particularly proud as a recipient of this honour by the queen, but, leaving the banquet, he sees Mordechai at the gate, stubbornly refusing to prostrate himself. With his family he resolves to set up a gallows in a tall tree and hang Mordechai even before the advent of Adar.

The king has a sleepless night, in which he asks for the royal chronicles to be brought to him. The chronicles remind him that nothing had done to award Mordechai for saving his life. At that point, Haman is waiting to see the King to request the hanging of Mordechai. The King summons him and asks him what should be done "to a man the King wishes to honour." Imagining that the King is referring to him, Haman suggests that the said beneficiary be donned in royal apparel and led through the streets of Shushan with a crier proclaiming his praises. The King then instructs Haman to heap those royal rewards on his archenemy Mordechai. In the wake of this humiliation, Haman relates this turn of events to his family. His wife warns him that if Mordechai is of Jewish descent, then "you will surely continue to fall". Then and there, Haman is whisked away to attend Esther's second banquet. When the King again asks to hear her request, she makes a dramatic plea for her own life and the life of her people. Achashverosh asks who could be such a cruel villain; she points to Haman. The King, in his anger, goes out to catch a breather in the garden, while Haman pleads for his own life to Esther. Unfortunately, he "falls on the couch" where Esther is reclining (he was pushed by an angel, according to the Midrash), just as the King re-enters from the garden. One of the King's servants then reveals that this same villain wanted to kill Mordechai, who had saved the King's life. A hood is placed over Haman's head, and he is taken away for a summary hanging on the tree he had prepared for Mordechai.

The King bestows all of the wealthy Haman's assets to Mordechai. The Jews are granted a new decree to rise up and fight their enemies on the 14th of Adar. They are later granted an extra day to fight their enemies in Shushan. Purim is declared an eternal holiday for feasting, the reading of the Megilah, giving of portions [of food] to one's friends and gifts to the poor.

That is the simple story. Of interest is that this is the only Biblical book in which the name of God never once appears. Also, of interest is the Talmudic dictum that in the times of the Messiah all of the Jewish holidays will be abandoned with the exception of Purim. Why is this so?

If we jump to the hermeneutical level and examine some of the inter-textual relationships we find that both Mordechai and Haman have an interesting karma behind their births. Haman is a descendant of Agag, the king of Amalek. Several hundred years earlier, King Saul was given the commandment to wipe out the cursed Amalekites, the first nation that attacked the Israelites in the desert. Although he ransacked the Amalekite kingdom, he disobeyed the commandment and kept Agag alive. God angrily informs the prophet Samuel of this defiance. Samuel proceeds to Saul's camp and to kill the Amalekite king by sword. He then announces that because of Saul's insubordination, he will lose the kingship. In the short interval that Agag was kept alive, he had enough time to impregnate his consort. It is from the circumstances of this union, and Saul's misplaced compassion, that Haman originates.

Fast forward about half-a-century and we find that Saul's replacement, King David, is faced with a rebellion by his son, Absalom. As David flees Jerusalem for his life, he is cursed by one Shima ben Gera, a religious leader who has sided with Absalom. David is urged by his aides to kill Shimi for lèse majesté, punishable by death. David refuses to do so. "Perhaps God will look after my affliction and requite me good for his cursing this day." Shimi lives a long life, and it is from his descendants, and ultimately from David's compassion, that Mordechai owes his existence.

There is another interesting relationship that hermeneutics reveal. According to the view of Rabbi Meir in the Talmud, Esther was more than just a blood relative to Mordechai: she was his wife. This is based upon the reading of the verse לקח אותה לבת ("he took her as a daughter") with לקח אותה לבית ("he took her as a wife"). Of course, in its inimitable fashion, the Talmud comes up with all sorts of interesting answers as to how Achashverosh failed to notice she was not a virgin, but we will not digress on that here. The main point is that Esther was committing adultery, an act punishable by death according to Torah law. The Talmud states that initially she was passive in the sexual act, which was therefore counted as rape rather than infidelity. Later, however, her entry into the royal chambers to plead for the life of her people constituted active seduction. At that point, she became halachically forbidden to Mordechai. From Esther's conscious sacrifice of her marital life to save her people, we learn of the significant Talmudic dictum: a sin committed for the sake of Heaven is preferable to a commandment performed with ulterior motives.

Climbing up the ladder to level of the exegetical, we find the reason for Achashverosh ordering a feast at the beginning of the story. Prior to Nebuchadnezzar's conquest of Jerusalem, Jeremiah had predicted that in 70 years the Jews would return to their homeland and rebuild the fallen Temple (still extant at the time of his prophecy). It was Achasverosh who, upon assuming power decades later, ordered that the work on the Temple initiated by his predecessor Cyrus, be brought to a halt. In the third year of his reign, 70 years after the onset of the Babylonian exile, Achashverosh concluded that Jeremiah's dreaded prophecy of the Jews regaining their former glory was doomed to failure. He ordered a feast to celebrate the continued subservience of the Jews to Persia.

On this level we also learn that Haman wanted to entice the Jews at this feast of Achashverosh. He wanted them to drink and thus succumb to the many sensual desires that this feast offered its participants. In contrast, Mordechai was concerned that the Jews attending this feast conducted themselves within the parameters of Jewish law. The Midrash teaches that while some of the Jews followed Mordechai's directives, many others did not. They celebrated the temptations of the senses at a feast where the victorious Achashverosh shamelessly drank from the golden vessels of the sacred Temple. In the spiritual realm, then, this "sin" gave empowerment to Haman and his plot to annihilate the Jews.

Finally, on the mystical level of sod, the Ari teaches that Haman was a reincarnation of the Primordial Serpent. This is because the first time the Hebrew letters of the name המן (Haman) appear in the Torah is in the verse המן העץ אשר צויתיך))
"Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you…?" (Genesis 3:11). According to the Ari, Haman's attempt to have the Jews eat at Achashverosh's feast was the same attempt of the Serpent to cause Adam and Eve to "sin" by bringing duality ('the knowledge of good and evil") into the oneness of Eden. The Zohar describes that sin as the separation of the Shechina from Ze'ir Anpin, the primordial breach in sefirotic unity, the rupture of Divine immanence and transcendence. It is also noteworthy that kabbalists describe Esther's separation from Mordechai, and her union with Achasverosh in the same terms. Esther is Malchut or Shechina, the "concealment" of the Divine in the physical world. Achashverosh translates into Hebrew as "pain in the head", a fairly good description of physical reality, especially one devoid of Spirit (i.e. where Shekihina and Tiferet are separated).

On the kabbalistic level the names of both Esther and Mordechai actually refer to fragrant herbs. Esther's Hebrew name is Hadassah, meaning myrtle; in Aramaic Mordechai translates to מר דכיא, meaning "pure frankincense". The sense of smell corresponds to the spiritual. It is the only sense that was not blemished in the original sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, in which all the other senses took part. It is for this reason we have the custom of smelling fragrant herbs upon the closing of the Shabbat; we try and retain some of the spiritual vibration sullied in the six-day workweek of material existence. According to Sefer Yetzirah, all of the months of the year correspond to a particular sense. The month of Adar corresponds to the sense of smell.

From this we can understand the origin of this holiday's name. When Adar came up in Haman's lottery, it was in fact the beginning of Israel's deliverance. The fact the incarnation of the Serpent, striving to re-enact the original sin of abandoning Divine oneness, chose the month corresponding to pure fragrance, was an assurance his scheme could not succeed. Although the name of God never appears explicitly in the Megillah, according to kabbalistic calligraphy, the scrolls are deliberately written with the word המלך, the King, at the top of every column. Though this ostensibly refers to Achashverosh, it refers as well to the transcendent God who is always already one with the immanent Goddess. This is why the Purim holiday will remain during the Messianic Era. At that time, Divine revelation will be ubiquitous. We will not need any holidays to remind us of such. What we will celebrate, however, is our ability to perceive that Divine Presence when it could not outwardly be seen. That is the "revelation of the concealed."

Lastly, we are taught that Esther and Achashvarosh had a child, who ascended the throne of Persia. His name was Darius, and one of his first acts was to grant the Jews permission to return to the land of Israel and rebuild the Temple. This took place exactly seventy years from the time of the first Temple's destruction.

I have only written a small morsel of what the Megillat Esther offers, but, as the kabbalists are wont to say: "Those who will understand, will understand."

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