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Learning to Use Our Power for Good: Reflecting on Purim

Power of any kind is a dangerous blessing. Individuals and nations need power to ensure their own survival and promote their own welfare and the welfare of those with whom they come into contact. But power can easily be abused. We can employ the same energy that enables us to do good, to do all sorts of evil. We cannot live without power, but power can destroy us. We need to learn how to use our power for the good. This has been one of the abiding goals of Jewish spiritual teachings over the ages and is a focus of the Festival of Purim.

The Megillah, the Scroll of Esther, the biblical book that is the source for our joyous festival of Purim, revolves around issues of political power and military force. It is a story that recalls how the Jews of the ancient Persian Empire drew on their political acumen, their martial power, their sense of shared destiny and their deep faith in each other to ensure their survival in challenging times. As we celebrate the miracle of Jewish continuity, the Megillah reminds us that economic, political and military power are important components in our struggle for survival. On Purim we remember that only when might and power are justly employed, can we experience the Holy One's saving and redeeming spirit.

Unlike the all the other great biblical narratives in which God is a central character, the Holy One plays no explicit role in the Scroll of Esther. In the scroll as it is in life, God's presence is hidden. In our lives we evoke God's spirit in the manner in which we respond to life's challenges. Likewise, in the Megillah we discover God's saving power not through some great miracle but through the courage of Esther to stand before the wicked prime minister, Haman, and in the willingness of the Jews to stand up to their enemies and defend their homes and families.

At first the Megillah does not seem to be a book about the uses and abuses of power. It begins as an historical romance. We are caught by surprise when it turns from a love story into a story of political intrigue and bloody conflict. The opening chapters, which tell of the expulsion of Vashti, King Ahasuerus' first wife and the beauty contest worthy of a present day reality TV show to select a new one, lull us into expecting a story of romantic intrigue. With the selection of Esther as the new queen, we want to know if a Jewish orphan can find happiness as mistress of the royal court. Will the course of true love run true? We will never know.

Almost immediately, the mood of the story changes. New characters come to the forefront -- Mordecai, Esther's guardian and kinsman, and Haman the Agagite, the new royal vizier. Powerful human emotions of lust, power, pride and greed come into play as the protagonists struggle to overcome each other. The story ends not with a romantic reconciliation but with a bloody military victory which confirms Jewish power and ensures Jewish survival. Esther and Mordecai expose Haman's plot to slaughter the Jews and the Jews, dispersed throughout the empire, defend themselves and their families. On the thirteenth of Adar, the very day chosen by Haman for their destruction, the Jews assail their enemies and kill seventy five thousand of their foes.

Three times the Megillah uses the motif of feasting to help us examine the use and abuse of power. The book open with a description of King Ahasuerus' feasts for the elite of his empire and for the people of his capital, Susa. For Ahasuerus great feasts provide him with the opportunity parade his glory and authority in front of his satraps and people. The Persian king uses power is a tool to support his need for domination and his lusty appetites. Although it led to her dismissal, Queen Vashti's refusal to dance before the king, underscores the shallowness of his concerns.

The two private dinner parties Esther hosts for the King and the upstart prime minister Haman provide a second occasion for the Megillah to focus on the use of power. In his preparations for the feasts, Haman demonstrates his understanding of political power as a means for self-aggrandizement and for revenge. Yet this is his downfall. To reveal Haman's plot to the king, Esther cleverly exploits Haman's ego needs.

The festive celebrations of the Jews decreed by Mordecai and Esther in honor of their unexpected deliverance present a third understanding of the uses of power. For the Jews and their leaders political and military power were not implements for domination or personal advancement. They were tools to be used to ensure personal and communal survival in a very dangerous world. Unlike Ahasuerus and Haman who hoped to despoil the Jews for their own personal needs, the Jews, led by Mordecai, sought no material reward from the spoils of battle.

In a highly entertaining manner, the Megillah directs our thoughts to very serious concern of the used of power. Reading the Scroll of Esther carefully, we can see negative examples in which power was used to indulge one's appetites and to threaten and oppress others. But we also see a positive example in which political and military power helped overthrow a tyrant and save our people. The Megillah exposes us to the abuses of power and to its benefits. When we use the power we have properly, we are able to transform our lives and the lives of others for the better. As we listen to the Megillah this year, may Mordecai and Esther teach us how to use the power we have, not for selfish gains, but to help ourselves and others enjoy the blessings of freedom and security.

Type: Dvar Torah