Purim is a lesser of the two Jewish spring celebrations. It has minimum requirements for observance and is mostly unknown to outsiders. Passover gets all the glory, and deservedly so. And yet, the story of Purim is as compelling as it is universal, and frankly deserves a better movie than this obscure production.
Think of the characters alone. A tyrannical King? Check. Evil advisor? Yep. Poor, beautiful and virtuous young woman, tasked with saving her people from certain doom? You got it. A kindly older man, a hero in his own right, giving said woman advice and inspiration? Absolutely. Add a magic wand and you have an old-fashioned Disney film. Ah, but here's the thing. There is no magic. Of course, you already knew that since we're talking a religious tale, but there is also no voice from above, no visible miracles, not even a mention of G-d. The heroes pray for wisdom and strength, but the actions are solely their own, even if in retrospect some of the coincidences must have been divinely guided. This, to me, is the central lesson of this Holiday. In dark times, we might wish for superheroes and extraordinary powers (as we certainly do now, considering our entertainment preferences), but they are not necessary. Often the only quality that separates the heroes from the rest is the will to make the right choices and persevere, no matter the cost.
That brings me to another point, and here comes the inevitable cultural connection. There is a lot of talk nowadays about the need of more Strong Female Characters in fiction. Most people, upon hearing the term, imagine leather-clad Amazonian babes kicking the bad guys into oblivion. Tiny women defeating men twice their size is a modern variation, currently in the process of overstaying its welcome, but the point is the same: physical prowess is valued above all.
Not so with Esther. It is easy, from the comfort of our modernity to underestimate the level of her courage, or the height of her achievement. She approaches her husband the King (who had ordered his beloved first wife Vashti executed for a single act of disobedience) without being called, in violation of court etiquette that is traditionally punishable by death. Then she proceeds to manipulate and outsmart both the King and his genocidal advisor Haman, thus obtaining mercy for her people and causing Haman's downfall.
How did Esther accomplish such a feat? Certainly not by force. Not by her beauty alone, either. Vashti's beauty did not save her from execution. In fact, Esther had gone through a fasting ritual before approaching the King--not something conducive to looking her best. Still, she succeeds. One can only conclude that her greatest assets, in addition to virtue and faith, were those usually underplayed in modern portrayal of heroic women: charm and patience, intuition and empathy. With those, she melted the heart of a tyrant and out-strategized a ruthless warrior, in a society that used women as disposable playthings. Perhaps modern storytellers could take a lesson as to the different ways in which a female character might be powerful, rather than falling back on the tired cliches of Hollywood and video games.
There is another way in which the tale of Purim diverges from the expected. The King, having decided not to kill the Jews, was unable to revoke his original verdict. Instead, he had given the Jews permission to arm themselves and fight back. And fight they do, defeating trained soldiers who had been sent to exterminate them. Once again, victory does not come from obvious divine interference, but is won by righteous, yet ordinary, individuals who had risen to the occasion. Esther had provided an opportunity for the Jews to save themselves, and they took it. In the final analysis, both parts of the story are equally important.
And so, there is another lesson to be found in this tale, perhaps most relevant to our times. Faith is important, and so is proper leadership. However, neither will save us from darkness if we, as individuals, refuse to act when called upon. Esther's courage would have been wasted had the people not rallied to protect their lives and homes. Let us not today similarly waste the sacrifices of those who came before us, the men and women who built and defended our great country. Freedom, safety and prosperity that we currently enjoy are fragile things, uncommon in history, rarely found even now around the world. By all means, let us choose the leaders who would help preserve them, but we dare not forget that the final responsibility lies, inevitably, within ourselves.