The post-Purim hangover*

By Rabbi Shira Wallach

When we imagine a time after the coming of the Mashiach — or for those who hold a different theology, a time when the world is so perfect that it no longer requires redemption — we think about a society without violence, war or hate. We consider what it would be like to live at a time when there is no poverty, hunger or disease, a time when we all are free from fear.

How will our religious obligations change, once we have been redeemed?

Maimonides (the Rambam) asserts that Torah study will continue; part of paradise, of course, is the ability to “discuss the holy books with the learned men [sic], seven hours every day” according to Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” However: Public readings of all prophetic books and sacred writings (that is, Neviim and Ketuvim) will cease. The only book that must continue to be read in public each year is Megillat Esther (Mishneh Torah, Scroll of Esther and Hanukkah 2:18).

As we slowly recover from our festive celebrations earlier this week, we must ask: Even in the era of perfection, what is there to be learned from the story of Purim? Surely, antisemitic villains like Amalek and Haman will no longer exist. Jews will be safe to live and practice freely, just like everyone else.

The answer lies in the first chapter of the Megillah, before Haman, or any plot against the Jews, is mentioned.

King Achashverosh throws a lavish party for 180 days so that he could display his vast power and fortune: an all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet in which the royal servants were obligated to fufill the men’s every whim.

Sounds like paradise… for those men.

Enjoying the buzz from his overflowing wine goblet, King Achashverosh thinks to himself: “You know what would make this moment perfect? I’ll bring in my most prized possession, my beautiful wife Vashti, so that all can see how great and powerful I am.”

But Vashti refuses. After all, she was hosting her own party, for all the women of the land.

Memuchan, one of the king’s advisors, warns Achashverosh of Vashti’s destructive influence: “Once the women hear of her insubordination, all wives will ignore their husbands’ wishes. If you exile Vashti and marry someone more obedient, all wives will see that they must treat their husbands with respect.”

The irony, of course, is that if King Achashverosh had succeeded in forcing his wife to display her beauty before his guests, it would have demeaned him as a leader.

A rabbinic Midrash imagines Vashti trying desperately to save her husband’s reputation. Three times, she sends coded messages to remind him to act with dignity and compassion. “She hinted to him, but he did not take the hint; she aimed her barb at him, but he was not stung” (Esther Rabbah 3:14). The rabbis do not consider Vashti a threat to order and civility; they laud her as a thoughtful leader and supportive spouse. Later in the Midrash, the rabbis even imagine that Achashverosh regrets sending her away, once his hangover subsides (ibid 5:2).

Why will we continue reading Megillat Esther in a redeemed world?

Because living in paradise may be so entirely wonderful that we will forget everyone’s access to a life free from persecution and objectification. We may become intoxicated with our own power and abundance, rationalizing our debased treatment of others. We may fall back on old patriarchal and racist systems of oppression and cruelty. Reading Megillat Esther regularly will ensure that we never misplace our efforts: that we always remember that true power comes from raising up the divinity and humanity present in each person.

*NOTE: Some have the practice on Purim of drinking until they cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai. Of course, one need not consume alcohol in order to fulfill Purim observances, and in fact, the rabbis dissuade us from imbibing unsafely.

Rabbi Shira Wallach serves Congregation Shearith Israel. She is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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