Rabbi Esther L. Lederman is Director of Communities of Practice at the Union for Reform Judaism. She previously served as the associate rabbi at Temple Micah in Washington, DC.
As children, we were given a sanitized ending: Queen Esther and Mordecai save the Jews from destruction at the hands of Haman and his minions. Much merriment ensues, with food and drink. Mishloach manot (gifts of food) are sent to neighbors and friends as a way of offering thanksgiving for being saved from the gallows.
Our rabbis, teachers, and parents didn’t want us to know how it really ended. The truth was kept hidden.
What is the truth? Here is how the Book of Esther ends:
"Thus the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword and slaughter and destruction, and did what they would unto those who hated them. And in the palace in Shushan the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men…. But the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces gathered themselves together and stood for their lives, and had rest from their enemies, and slew of their foes seventy five thousand; but they laid not their hands on the spoil."
In other words, Megillat Esther ends in a blood bath of hatred and revenge. The Jews, now in a position of power thanks to the largesse of King Achashverus, can finally do what they’ve always dreamt of doing to the descendants of Amalek – slaughter them.
How are we to make sense of such a gruesome and challenging story?
It begins by imagining that this is not in fact a real story, based on any form of historical accuracy. The Book of Esther has all the ingredients of a fairy tale: a “once upon a time,” a beautiful queen, a brave hero, a jester (the king), an evil man. There is not one piece of evidence outside of the Biblical canon that these events ever occurred. The history books know nothing of a Jewish Queen of Persia.
In other words, the Book of Esther is the creation of our ancestors’ imagination. You might be wondering – and this is the good news? We should take comfort in the fact that our ancestors created a story of the kind of revenge they would enact upon their enemies?
Given what we know of our ancestors elusive hold on power, it shouldn’t be surprising that this is the kind of fantasy, wish-fulfillment they would imagine. I can sympathize. I can understand their desire for revenge. I can understand that kind of hatred towards the enemies who have tried to destroy you.
It is a part of human nature to have fantasies, to wish for things that we know will never happen. Often we think fantasies can be dangerous, especially if we don’t know the line between fantasy and reality.
But what if there is a danger in NOT having fantasies?
What if the story of Purim exists because we need someplace for our fantasies to live, where they can be just that, fantastical stories that have no basis in reality, and where our murderous ideas of revenge can be kept at bay? What if we need fantasies so we can avoid them becoming hard cold realities?
Purim is the story of the Jews we don’t want to be, of the Jews we don’t want to become. Purim is the story of what we don’t want to happen when given the gift of power.
We need to tell ourselves this story, year after year, as a way to avoid becoming our own worst nightmare. This year, more than ever, we need to remind ourselves of the dangerous boundary between fantasy and reality. There have been numerous accounts of Palestinian assailants stabbing Jews in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and elsewhere. I’ve never avoided the Old City in my numerous trips to Israel but this past November, my family begged me not to go. It’s seductive to think about what we could do with our power against our enemies, the revenge we could have. But where would that get us? With more blood on our hands, with no more stability at living in peace with our neighbors, no more closer to a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians.
May the story of Purim this year be an outlet for our fantasy, and may it remain so, a fantasy of our own worst selves, making room for the reality of the people we want to be.