Real Life

Purim is a popular Jewish holiday. It has a lot of thing going for it: for one, the good guys win one for a change. Jewish history is filled with some very disheartening events – destruction of the Jerusalem temple, exile, persecution, and genocide. It’s heartening to have a holiday where the persecutors lose dramatically at last. 

It is also an attractive holiday for having a woman in the heroic role. Esther – who had previously been notable only for winning a national beauty contest – manages to find the courage and strength to save her people from death. 

Another particularly interesting thing about the story of Purim is that - unlike the other books of the Hebrew Scriptures - God is not actually mentioned anywhere. There is no point where God afflicts the bad guys with plagues, has them swallowed up by a whale, or any of the usual stuff. In fact, God does not even speak in the story, making room for a different way of understanding the divine – in a god that is more involved in motivating human action than in being an active, directive, participant. 

And Purim is the only day of the year when Jews are encouraged to drink. Jews are generally pretty abstemious and Jewish law teaches that one should not drink to excess. But on Purim, Jews are encouraged not only to drink but to really go all out. The Talmud – a commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures - says this: 

‘A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai"’ 

And Purim is a day you get to make a lot of noise in the synagogue, as we did this morning. No wonder it is popular. 

But there is also a lot not to like in the Purim story. The violence, for one thing. Yes, Haman is a bad guy. But wouldn’t you think that life imprisonment would be a sufficient punishment? No - Haman is killed, his family is killed, and all the Persians who were ready to follow his decree are killed too. 

What about the old queen - poor Vashti? She has been hailed by some as the first feminist for daring to refuse her royal husband's order to come dance for him and his drunken buddies. Harriet Beecher Stowe called Vashti's disobedience the "first stand for woman's rights." But instead of becoming an exemplar and a renowned feminist champion, Vashti gets banished from the palace. 

And what of our heroine, Esther? Not so impressive really – after all - she only musters the courage necessary to speak to the king and save her people after she realizes that her own life is at risk. 

And the King is persuaded to spare the Jews because of his love for Esther, not because he has had some epiphany telling him that justice and fairness are essential to being a good and decent human being – especially for one who holds the power of life and death in his hands. 

I would have I would like a very different Purim story... 

In my story, Vashti refuses to dance and divorces the king, who seeing the error of his ways gives her a realm of her own to govern, and her rule is known throughout the world for its justice and the guarantee of complete equality of men and women in all things. 

In my story, Esther would be chosen as a bride not because of her beauty, but for her wisdom and goodness. 

And when Haman's plan was exposed, the genocide would be averted and there would be no killing or retribution. 

The king would be transformed by the experience and would create a just reign in which all are treated as equals. 

Poor Haman would receive state-funded psychotherapy to help him with his anger and low self-esteem issues caused by an deeply unhappy childhood. He would makes amends with Esther, and in his new role as a multicultural trainer, he would plays an important role in creating a peaceful and just kingdom. 

One of my many weaknesses is that I am disappointed when the world does not turn out in the rather idealistic way I would hope. 

I am disappointed often. 

The world I want to see does not exist. Sometimes we try to create it by revising history. We might think of the end of slavery in America as a noble change that occurred because wise people recognized what was right – rather than the truth that the freeing of the slaves was driven by economic, rather than more lofty motivations. 

We think of someone like Martin Luther King as a modern-day prophet, while we try to put aside his apparently frequent womanizing. 

We see the progress of equality for gay and lesbian people and rejoice that humankind has at last seen the light. In fact, much of the change has come because of the political clout of gay and lesbian organizing and because of the desire among merchants to take advantage of their purchasing power. 

In Tunisia, we saw recently a fairly peaceful revolution take place. Even there, change did not happen out of pure goodness. There was bloodshed and the leader left because he recognized he had no other choice – not because it was in some pure sense the right thing to do. 

From the example of Libya, we know that change can often be impossible without tremendous violence and suffering. 

Very little in this world happens wholly for good and righteous motivations. Even those who seem to be saintly and self-sacrificing, often have their dark sides – or they do what they do because it satisfies a deep need within them. 

One might say that nothing is ever truly done unselfishly. 

The idealist in me recoils at this fact. But the realist rejoices at a world where such things are possible. 

And the realization that nothing is ever as pure and righteous as we might imagine or write it in our history books is actually an enormous relief. 

You see, I’m not perfect. Shocking, I know… I am as imperfect as they come. I have my selfishness, my lack of focus… My motivations don’t always come from an absolutely pure good and righteous place. 

When I do good, it is always – at least in part – because it makes me feel good. A psychotherapist, ten years, and a few hundred thousand pounds could probably begin to unravel what makes me do what I do… but the big relief of a realistic view of the progress of justice is that I can know that imperfect people like me can do great things. 

You don’t have to be a saint to forward the progress of justice. 

You don’t have to a selfless ascetic to create more love in this world. 

You don’t have to a radiant holy being to lessen the suffering of your fellow human beings. 

It’s all much messier than we would like. It’s much more political than we would like. 

It’s real life. It’s about flawed people like all of us doing the best we can. It’s about getting in there and getting our hands dirty. 

We – the flawed, noisy, sometimes drunken… We, the regular, ordinary, imperfect, people – are the ones who can truly make a difference.