Purim 2013 AJN Go East Young Man
Sunday, 16 June 2013 | 8 Tammuz, 5773
Go east young man – Purim is on the way! The very opening words of the Megillah – and certainly the first chapter of this Book of Esther – transport us into an exotic, sybaritic kingdom. The great empire stretches from India to Africa (MeHoduvead Kush). The palace that Achasverosh constructs is a “stately pleasure dome” of expansive slabs of marble, pavements of precious inlaid stones, lavish hangings and exquisite gardens.
This chapter sets the scene for the rest of the story because it invites us into the mind and heart of the complex autocratic ruler, King Achashverosh. He is grandiose, out to impress but his ostentation and power hide a lingering insecurity which will be manipulated by Haman and exploited by Esther.
I only understood the full implications of this chapter when I visited Rajasthan in India recently. The fabulously wealthy Maharajas that once ruled this northern state of India knew all about precious stones and rich hangings of “white, fine cotton and blue wool…upon silver rods and marble pillars, couches of gold and silver” (Esther 1:6). They created stunning gardens with beautiful water features, they had outer courtyards for audiences with the plebeians, they had inner reception rooms for the “officials and royal workers” (Esther 1:3) and they impressed the pants off their visitors with “golden goblets – no two goblets alike” (Ibid 1:7). They had administrative offices at the gates where politicians and lobbyists like Mordechai could hang out. And they certainly had extensive, secure quarters for their harems.
It is easy to be cynical about all this wealth and corruption. It is easy to dismiss Achashverosh as a foolish, hedonistic, totalitarian ruler with an edifice complex, but there is surely a role for places and objects of beauty. The Torah itself dedicates numerous chapters to the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the Temple.
My visit to India reminded me that grand monuments and palaces are not just pretentious pleasure centres. Bill Clinton ostensibly put it best: "You can divide the world into those who are lucky and those who are unlucky. Among the first are those who have seen the Taj Mahal" Having had the good fortune of visiting the Taj recently I would certainly agree.
Nothing quite prepares one for this majestic dream in marble set in the rather ordinary city of Agra, India. Despite the iconic images and the hackneyed depiction of the Taj Mahal as a glorified call centre, this monument defies any preconceptions or easy definitions. It has a demanding and dignified presence; it exudes a sense of mystery and serenity; it reaches into your soul.
Built over twenty two years (represented by the 22 small domes on the main entrance) and completed in 1648, this tribute by the Mughal emperor, Shahjahan to his beloved deceased wife MumtazMahal (The Lady of the Taj) is deservedly one of the world's wonders. We visited at sunset time, and the exquisite white marble took on the soft petalled hues of the sky. It seemed a fitting moment to davenmincha in one of the quiet corners (despite the huge crowds) of the magnificent courtyards overlooking the gardens and pools. It was a reminder of how G-d's presence is not confined to any one place and I enjoyed the irony of praying near a Muslim monument. The Taj itself is not a mosque but a glorious tomb.
India is a country where religion counts and inflames great passion. When you apply for a visa you're asked your religion and the list of religions is long and impressive. Everywhere we traveled (and we only saw a small part of this vast country) there were signs and reminders of the enormous Hindu population, the lesser number of Muslims, Christians and Jain's and others. Holy cows wander across the teeming streets of the modern capital, New Delhi, little Hindu shrines dot the countryside and huge Vegas-like statues and temples rise out of the squalor. We met a Jain priest who called us his Yehudi brothers and insisted on giving us a "misheberach". The five million Jain's in India are part of an ancient religion typified by a reverence for all life. The Jain's will not walk on grass and sweep the ground in front of them to avoid crushing insects.
I was reminded of the Chassidic Rebbe who apparently wore bells at the bottom of his clothing to warn little creatures he was approaching. Incidentally we were told a few times that Jains and Jews are the best business men around!
But back to Purim and Achashverosh…The Book of Esther is the only book of the Torah in which the main events are totally disconnected from the land of Israel. It’s a diaspora story set in the east, seemingly unrelated to anything Jewish. It however plausible and possible that there was an ancient connection between this empire and the Jews.
The mystical Rabbi Glazerson has proposed that the Brahman (of Hindu priesthood) is related to Abraham - they share the same letters. He also notes that Abraham sent some of his sons with gifts to the East: "to the concubine children, Abraham gave gifts then he sent them away from Isaac his son, while he was still alive, eastwards to the land of the east" (Genesis 25:6). The gifts that Abraham sent could well have included spiritual truths and insights. The Zohar Chadash writes that these children carried a spark of Abraham in their souls. We share common heritage with the people of the east.
The Purim story is then about the merging of western and eastern consciousness. It’s also a reminder that perhaps we should spend less time worrying about our enemies across the Arab, European and contemporary Persian world and more on our potential allies on the Asian continent and sub-continent. After all the India (and China) are the most populated countries on earth. The Taj Mahal has been described as a gorgeous “tear drop on the cheek of eternity.” In my mind that is also a great description of the little book of Esther. Sometimes you need to travel east to understand eternity.