SAVE THE CHEERLEADER, SAVE THE WORLD!
a sermon for Purim by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, March 17, 2019
In the 2006-2007 school year, Walter and I hosted a couple of high school foreign exchange students in our home in Mt. Vernon, Illinois. Friedrich was an 18-year-old German boy, and Nicolas, a 16-year-old French boy. Friedrich was outgoing, played in the marching band, and had lots of friends. Nicolas was quiet and kept to himself. But he came out of his room to eat family meals and to watch a select few TV shows. So that year, to maximize our interaction, I watched the shows he loved most: The OC, a soap whose main characters were angst-ridden, wealthy California teens, and Heroes, which traced the lives of a core group of people born with special abilities, from flying to bending time-space to healing and cellular regeneration. Heroes has a healthy dose of conspiracy and secret organizations, villains both “normal” and “gifted,” human experimentation and concentration-camp-style imprisonment, and risk of annihilation of those with special abilities and mostly secret identities.
In the first season, Hiro Nakamura, a young-adult Japanese character who can “teleport” trough time and space, comes from the future to give an important message to Peter Petrelli, the series’ most empathetic character. The message was, “Save the cheerleader, save the world!” Hiro’s childlike self-congratulating expression “Yata!”, meaning “I did it!”, and “Save the cheerleader, save the world!” became the watchwords of our household until Nicolas returned to France. Each week we watched the show and talked about the characters and the dangers they faced. Friedrich would sit with me at the table long after dinner to talk about life and his problems, conscious that he was there to practice his English, asking about vocabulary and grammar. But Nicolas entered into the fictional world of Heroes and practiced his English almost accidentally.
Heroes presented a world full of mystery and danger, as well as a world of discovery and possibility. It was a world where people who were special sometimes were seen as putting others in danger and sometimes had to keep their specialness secret in order to survive. So as I was looking ahead in the service schedule, deciding on sermon topics, and I saw that today is the Sunday that falls before the Jewish holiday of Purim begins this Wednesday at sunset, I thought about Esther, the Jewish beauty queen who became actual queen of the 127 provinces of the Persian Empire – Esther, who had to keep her identity secret to preserve her life – Esther, whose self-preservation had to be risked to prevent the destruction of her people. I thought of this beauty queen who had to be secretly saved in the palace for her people to be saved publicly, and my mind went to the phrase, “Save the cheerleader, save the world!” Save the beauty queen, save her scattered, oppressed people!
Purim is an unusual holiday for a whole lot of reasons. The biblical text that is read in both the evening and morning on Purim is Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther, which is read from a scroll containing just the ten chapters of that book. The book is often just called The Megillah, even though that is the general word for scroll. THE Megillah refers to Esther, while the slang phrase “the whole megillah” refers to any elaborate, complicated production or sequence of events taken in its entirety. The whole ball of wax. And the story of Esther, which is the basis for the holiday of Purim is, indeed an elaborate, complicated story, with lots of plotting and strategizing before it reaches its conclusion.
The Megillah is the only book of TaNaKh, the Hebrew scriptures, that never once mentions God, never mentions any ritual practices or beliefs of Judaism; it does not tell of a supernatural miracle; it never mentions the Temple in Jerusalem. Esther presents the first story of anti-Semitism’s genocidal intentions shaped as Persian supremacy. The time and place where the story takes place are real, but the story itself is largely ahistorical. Quite simply, the events comprise a fantasy that never happened in any literal sense.
The names of the story’s two heroes are Esther and Mordechai. Esther was born with the name Hadassah but took the name Esther when she needed to conceal her ethnicity in order to enter the beauty contest through which the Persian king Ahasuerus, or Achashverosh, would select his new queen. The names “Esther” and “Mordechai” are seen by some scholars as parallel to the names Ishtar and Marduk, who were ancient Mesopotamian gods. Ishtar was known as the Queen of Heaven, a fertility goddess, among other roles. Marduk, a later arising god, was the tutelary deity of the city Babylon. The line of inquiry leads some to posit that The Megillah was originally not a Jewish story at all but a minor Mesopotamian myth that got revised by Jews as a short story or novella for their own uses. And, while these names intend to disguise Jewish identity, they are also not names of the gods or personages of Persia, but of Mesopotamia, which Persia had conquered. The Kingdom of Judah had been conquered and its people taken captives by Babylonia. Then Persia conquered the conquerors and an already complex Middle Eastern story gets really complicated.
My friend Rabbi Gershon Steinberg-Caudill holds that the reason this story tenaciously held on until it was the final Hebrew book to be canonized by the ancient sages was an ironic one: the very fact that it never mentions God while telling a story of Jewish survival against the odds allowed it to be an ideal practice text for scribes to copy to learn their scribal art. It would be complicated, to say nothing of expensive, if a scribe started learning to handwrite formal texts using the Torah, where a single mistake renders the scroll unusable. So canonizing Esther could be seen as something like canonizing the workbooks of the once favored Palmer Method of penmanship. Once canonized, The Megillah was widely interpreted as containing hidden messages of the divine.
Purim is also unusual among Jewish holidays in how it is traditionally celebrated. Purim is the holiday when children and some adults wear costumes. Go to a synagogue or Jewish community center on Purim, and you will see people dressed up as Esther, Mordechai, Haman, and Achashverosh, as well as Wonder Woman, Spiderman, and other heroes or villains of popular culture. The reading of biblical books is generally taken with great seriousness, but at Purim, The Megillah is read to the people jeering, hissing, booing and drowning out the name of the villain Haman with graggers at every mention, while the names of Esther and Mordechai are cheered. Every time you hear the name, the people respond energetically, positively or negatively.
Most holidays have their own traditional foods. And Purim is no different. For Purim, there is the treat known as hamentaschen, which are explained as resembling either the ears or the three-cornered hat of the defeated villain Haman. They are a triangular filled cookie. Most traditional among the fillings are poppyseeds or fruit. It’s all so simple until it’s not. Within the past few decades, feminist scholars have theorized that these cookies originally were not really about the defeat of the villain Haman so much as they were female fertility symbols. Remember Ishtar, one of whose roles was goddess of fertility? The scholarship is not universally accepted. Nor would you expect it to be. But the meaning becomes richer with its multiple strands.
And one of the most fascinating tidbits about Purim that come to us from the ancient world was the rabbis’ foretelling that, alone among the holidays, only Purim would continue to be celebrated once that theoretical and idealized age of the coming of the messiah arrived. All the holy days of the calendar? Gone. Except for Purim, the holiday that does not celebrate some divine or supernatural act. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that call the people to repentance, atonement, and renewal? Gone. Passover, calling the people to remember their deliverance from being enslaved? Gone. Shavuot, with its celebration of the giving of the Law at Sinai? Gone. In an age when the problems of the world are expected to be overcome and a divine order fully realized, celebrating hope for deliverance becomes moot. And the Purim salvation from destruction was achieved without supernatural miracles – like the Messianic Age will be when it comes.
We can only barely begin to dig into the meaning of the whole megillah, to touch on the importance of the holiday that is traditionally held to transcend time, even beyond the demise of all other historic celebrations. But the 20th and 21st Centuries CE offer perspective we would be remiss not to pay attention to. In The Megillah’s story, key concerns are identity, secrecy and letting go of secrets, exile and belonging, power and powerlessness, destruction, self-preservation and survival. In a symbolic way, we could say that this is a coming out story. Esther lets go of the secret of her identity for the greater well-being of her people. In the words of writer and filmmaker Ariel Sobel:
Queen Esther had a secret – a violent, consuming reality pulsing through her veins that kept her up at night. It made every room feel like solitary confinement. If it were exposed, it could end her job, her marriage and even her life. But slipping into silence was not an option. So after years of torment, Esther went public as a Jew.
Thus she draws the parallel between keeping the secret of ethnic identity and keeping the secret of sexual orientation or gender identity. The historic Harvey Milk, first out elected public official in the United States, said in a tape he recorded against the possibility of being assassinated:
I would like to see every gay doctor come out, every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let that world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody would imagine. I urge them to do that, urge them to come out. Only that way will we start to achieve our rights.
He understood and acted, at the cost of his life, on the knowledge that secrets kill. You may die when you reveal the secret of who you are, but countless people die through the cause of keeping the secret. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, and queer people are at increased risk of violence against them by those who hate and fear. They are also at increased risk of suicide in the face of hate and rejection, particularly among the young. Coming out is not an indulgence. It is lifesaving. Being who you are in all your complexity is an essential piece of saving your people.
In The Megillah, when Haman issues the decree with the king’s seal ordering the death of all Jews on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, Mordechai sends a messenger to Esther, telling her of the decree and instructing her to go to the king and ask him to repeal the decree. Esther sent a message back to her cousin, saying, I can’t do that! Anyone who goes to the king unbidden risks death or banishment! Mordechai sent back, saying:
Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.
At such a time as this. For just such a time as this… Esther is both terrified of what will come and convinced that it is hers to ask, hers to act. She couldn’t be queen and not take the risk that might bring her people through the impending catastrophe. Jewish tradition teaches that saving even a single life is like saving the whole world. And here was Esther, not selected for any quality other than her beauty and congeniality. She had not yet proven her bravery, not yet saved anybody. For all most people knew she might have had the signature lack of depth so often expected of beauty queens and cheerleaders. In Heroes, though how and why is never certain, it was imperative to save the insignificant cheerleader from Odessa, Texas, in order to ensure the survival of the whole world. At Purim we celebrate the way the voice of a single, unlikely person that we probably would not expect to save anybody – that person’s voice can save a whole people, can save worlds.
Come out! Speak out! Appeal to power! Challenge power! Resist power that is pursuing evil purposes! Who knows but that your voice is uniquely suited to save your own community, to save those in danger at this moment, to save the world?
Be who you are! Bring blessing and save the world through all that you are!
Amen and Blessed Be.
 Esther 4:13-14 (NRSV)
© Copyright 2019 by Rev. Paul Oakley