Chaplain’s Corner: Wearing the whirlwind

Rabbi Seth Wax

Yesterday, the Jewish community on campus and around the world celebrated the holiday of Purim. Purim is one of the most — if not the most — fun holidays in the Jewish holiday cycle. We dress in costumes and masks, tell jokes, and eat and drink, sometimes to excess. For kids, it’s one of the highlights of the year; you can find Purim carnivals, replete with games and rides, in synagogues and Jewish community centers around this time.

Yet behind all of this joy and frivolity is a strange and at times frightening tale, as recorded in the biblical Scroll of Esther, or in Hebrew, Megillat Esther. It tells a tale set in the realm of King Achashverosh, the ruler of the Persian empire, and of a wicked and homicidal man named Haman who has become prime minister. Angered that a Jewish man named Mordechai does not bow down to him, Haman plans to murder all of the Jews. He is only stopped through the brave and wise intervention of Queen Esther, who has kept her Jewish identity a secret until she reveals it in order to save herself and her people.

The point of highest tension in the story comes in the fifth chapter. With the encouragement of her uncle, and despite her own reticence, Esther decides to approach King Achashverosh in order to initiate a plan to save herself and her people. However, in the strange and rather foolish customs of the court, the queen can only approach the king when summoned, or if the king points his scepter at her when she approaches unbidden. If that does not happen, she will die. She asks all of the Jews of the Persian kingdom to join her in fasting for three days, with prayers that she survives the ordeal. She steps into an encounter where the stakes could not be higher.

To prepare for this encounter, the megillat Esther tells us that the queen dressed in malchut, or kingship. The text does not explicitly say she put on royal garments, although we might assume as much, as she prepares to enter the royal court. One rabbi of the Talmud, however, adopting a style of close reading that is characteristic of Jewish interpretation of antiquity, suggested that Esther dressed herself in ruach ha-kodesh, or divine inspiration (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 15a). This reading suggests that Esther was infused by divine guidance to help her in her moment of need.

While I like that idea, I am more inspired by how it is developed in the Zohar (3:169b), a collection of 13th century teachings that serve as a basis for Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. There, we learn that when Esther approached King Achashverosh, she did, as the Talmud suggests, adorn herself in ruach ha-kodesh. However, in Hebrew, ruach can mean not only “spirit,” but also “wind.” So instead of drawing divine support, the Zohar suggests that she garbed herself in a divine wind. When she appeared before the king, Esther was wrapped in a fearsome whirlwind from the heavens. I imagine her a bit like a figure from a fantasy story, as she moves through the royal court clad with storm clouds, thunder and winds whipping around her, as lightning illuminates her silhouette. Her confidence and her strength inspire awe in all those who behold her.

It is from this place of power that Esther initiates her plan. In the end, the Jews are saved, Haman is stymied, and everyone celebrates. But I think this image offers something important for us. At a moment of despair, facing her own destruction and that of her people, Esther summons deep wells of strength and fortitude. When she steps into a situation of peak danger, that moment unleashes inconceivable power. At the time when she is most vulnerable, that is when her bravery and willingness to step forward is amplified by a heavenly burst of energy that renders her even more formidable than she, or we, could have ever imagined.

At the College, I have noticed that there is often a creeping fear of saying the wrong thing, of not getting things right. It feels like there is a pervasive anxiety to appear perfect, to look like a finished product whose ideas and plans for the future are all laid out. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to be vulnerable and honest about our fears. About the things we have not yet figured out. To step into situations where we do not know what will happen, and even worse, when the stakes of losing appear to come at such a high cost to our sense of security and self.

Esther would rather not have risked her life for her people. And yet she did. When she resolved to step forward, she received support from an unseen source that rendered her invincible. Now, I can’t promise that you will be garbed in a whirlwind the next time you speak up in class when you’re not sure if what you’re about to say is right or not, talk to the person whom you’re afraid to approach, do something that you think will make you look foolish, or share your own insecurities about what you are doing with your life. But I do believe that when we step out of our comfort zone, we open the possibility of receiving support and guidance from places that we are rarely aware of.

Rabbi Seth Wax is the College’s Jewish Chaplain.