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Speaking to the Soul: Finding Virtue

Speaking to the Soul: Finding Virtue

by Linda McMillan

 

 

There is a lot that we can know. There are the undisputed facts of life: Photosynthesis, maths facts, basic science… we agree on those knowable things. There’s also the simple data of our lives like name, address, phone number; and more complicated data too like how deep is the ocean and how blue is the sky. Yes! Even those things can be known. Yet there are other things which we can’t know. We can’t always know the best course for our lives, the right things to do, or the intention of even our own hearts. Most certainly we do not know about the intention of other’s hearts.

 

I was reminded of that this week when I came upon a passage in Midrash Esther about the King Ahasuerus. Were it not for the wicked Haman, Ahasuerus would surely be the one whose name we blot out on Purim. He has a terrible reputation!

 

Just to remind you of the story:  When Ahasuerus came back from his disastrous defeat by the Greeks — Some say that he lost well over a million soldiers — he took a new wife: Esther. Ahasuerus really loved Esther, too. She was his very favorite wife — At the time. The thing is, owing to a scheme cooked up between Esther and her cousin Mordechai, Ahasuerus didn’t know that Esther was a Jew. Thus, when Ahasuerus ordered that all the Jews should be killed he had also ordered his own very favorite wife to be killed too! As it turns out, the command to murder all the Jews was based on a perceived slight. Mordechai, a Jew like Esther, of course, refused to bow down to one of the king’s retainers, Haman. Thin-skinned and childish, Haman couldn’t stand it, so he snookered King Ahasuerus into ordering that all Jews be killed. Fortunately, Mordechai had previously gotten wind of a plot to kill Ahasuerus and had been instrumental in foiling the plot. Ahasuerus found out about Mordechai’s involvement in saving his life just in time to spare Mordechai and the all the other Jews too! It’s very exciting stuff. But, you can see why it would become a tradition to blot out the name of Haman, a direct descendant of Amalek, by the way!

 

It is well established that Haman was a bad guy. He couldn’t handle the slight by Mordechai and instigated a genocide based on nothing more than his bruised ego. So, it is natural to want to blot him out. Doing so, though, rather lets Ahasuerus off the hook, but he was not a good guy either.

 

LIke Haman, Ahasuerus had a tender ego. He banished Queen Vashti, whom he loved, simply for disobeying him (and most modern readers would side with Vashti on her decision!). In fact, Ahasuerus was so upset by her refusal to come and show her beauty that he issued a kingdom-wide decree stating that the husband was the head of the household and that the women had better obey their husbands. Like Haman’s  genocide over a perceived slight, the response was too big for the occasion.

 

Ahasuerus was rich — some say the richest king in Persia and Media — and  there’s nothing wrong with  being rich, but he was ostentatious too. In fact, the lead-up to his first queen, Vashti, being dethroned was a week-long party, which came just at the end of a six-month long party, and it was a lavish affair too. “Couches made of gold and silver had been placed in the courtyard, which was paved with white marble, shining mother-of-pearl, and blue turquoise. Drinks were served in gold cups, no two of them alike and the king was generous with the royal wine. There were no limits on the drinks; the king had given orders to the palace servants that everyone could have as much as he wanted.” Also, and this is pretty bad, he had all the sacred vessels from the sanctuary taken out of his royal treasure-house and brought into the banquet so that he could show them to his guests. It is also said that he was very miserly and that he hid his wealth.

 

According to one commentator, he was simply whimsical and vacillating, according to Abba Gorion, though,  “…he was so unstable that he sacrificed his wife to his friend, and his friend to his wife… probably meaning the emperor Domitian.”

 

Plus, he went along with the plan to kill all the Jews! He is really not a very nice man.

 

Yet, the Midrash almost admonishes us to also remember his virtues:

 

“Among the vices of Ahasuerus, his four cardinal virtues should not be overlooked. (1) Modesty. He reigned three years without demanding a crown or throne. (2) Patience, as he waited for years before he found a wife worthy of his exalted position. (3) He was not too self-reliant, as he did nothing without first consulting with those whom he trusted. (4) He was grateful, since any benefit bestowed on him had to be recorded in a book kept for the purpose.” — Midrash Esther 1

 

Based on what we know of Ahasuerus any of those virtues — with the possible exception of number four — could be refuted, yet the writers of the Midrash have given us these virtues and backed them up with examples. If these writers, most certainly under no obligation to do so, can find virtue in a man who once ordered their destruction, how much more might we look for and find virtue in our own enemies?

 

The basis for certain parts of our Baptismal Covenant is the presumption that every single person bears in their body the image of God. That is why we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and to respect the dignity of every human being. Obviously, that means that we should look out for the poor and the vulnerable. We should stand up for one another, speak out against injustice, be always poised to spring into action in defense of the other 6 billion icons of God we share this planet with. But, it also means that we should look for virtue in those who are rich and powerful, even if the light of God appears dim. When people choose to ignore their higher nature, it is up to us to call it out of them. That is what the Midrashic writers are modeling by calling forth the virtues of Ahasuerus.

 

We think we know so much. After all, we know how blue is the sky and how deep is the sea… is there any knowledge we can’t gain? The things we don’t know are the secrets of the human heart. When we look only at the outward appearance, the ostentatious wealth, miserly hiding of money, abuse of women, all the negative traits we see in King Ahasuerus, we must also stop to remember that this too is a child of God, the image of God is in there… somewhere… and it is up to us to make it known.

 

Who have you written off?

 

In whom do you no longer even look for the light of God?

 

Which enemy have you so thoroughly demonized that you can not see anything virtuous in them?

 

These are the questions for today.

 


Some Notes of Possible Interest

How deep is the sea?
The average depth of the ocean is about 12,100 feet. The deepest part of the ocean is called the Challenger Deep and is located beneath the western Pacific Ocean in the southern end of the Mariana Trench, which runs several hundred kilometers southwest of the U.S. territorial island of Guam. Challenger Deep is approximately 36,200 feet deep.
How Blue is the sky?
The cyanometer was invented by Geneva-based scientist Horace Benedict de Saussure in 1789. He systematically documented the blueness of the sky with his cyanometer, a simple circular tool with 53 shades of blue. He concluded that blueness is influenced by both moisture and the amount of suspended particles in the air.

The Cyanometer also refers to an installation piece by Martin Bricelj Baraga which is in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Ahazarus reigned for 21 years during the Persian period, between Darius I and Artaxerxes I. You may know him better by his Greek name,  Xerxes I. Some scholars think he may have actually been Artaxerxes I, still others Darius I. It’s one of those things we can’t be sure about, but probably Xerxes.

The tradition of blotting out Haman’s name is here. This is an interesting article. I had not heard about reading the names of Haman’s sons all in one breath before… Interesting instruction for lectors!

Exodus 17:14… Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”

Since there is no longer a people called Amalek some have wondered if the command to blot out Amalek is still valid. Some say no, others say that Amalek still exists. In the 1930’s some speculated that the Nazis were descendent of Amalek, more recently it’s been suggested that Islamic extremists were descendants of Amalek. Even the puritan preacher Cotten Mather involved Amalek, instructing puritans who were fighting native Americans to blot out Amalek. In no case, though, should Amalek and Haman be understood to be literal people, nor their descendants. Rather they are stand-ins for the lower nature in each of us. Esther might call it the Yetzer Hara… the evil inclination. Blot out the evil inclination and nurture the good inclination. The reason God was so hard on Amalek in the Bible is because they attacked the Israelites just after they’d been rescued from Egypt when they were vulnerable and weak. Amalek is one who attacks the vulnerable. Blot out Amalek. When understood properly the commandment still stands.

You can read all about Queen Esther, King Ahasuerus, Mordechai, Haman, and the gang in the book of Esther in the Tanak, also in the Christian Bible.  There is an excellent article by Gerson B. Levi, Kaufmann Kohler, George A. Barton in The Jewish Encyclopedia, available online, which I have relied on for this essay.

The description of King Ahasuerus’s party is in Esther 1:6-8.

Esther 1:4… For a full 180 days, he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty.

That is why we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and to respect the dignity of every human being. – From the Baptismal Covenant, BCP, page 304-305

Linda McMillan lives in Yangzhong, China. —  Home of the pufferfish.

 

Image: By Gelder, Aert de (1645 – 1727) – artist (Dutch)Details of artist on Google Art ProjectoAH9K-jXAo9uhA at Google Cultural Institute
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Linda McMillan

It's not just to respect their dignity, though that's part of it. But it's also to actively look for the good in them. To wonder, "What do they offer our community and the world?" and to draw that out when it seems buried. I wonder what I might gain if I stopped demonizing my enemy and tried to learn from them; what could they teach me, and how might the experience of having a willing pupil change them? I don't know. I agree that it will be hard. But I don't want to go through the next four years continuing to do all the things that haven't been effective in the past. I have to try something new.

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Ann Fontaine

I think it is going to be a bigger challenge for me to respect the dignity of those who treat others so terribly. Dispensing respect on those who are suffering, oppressed, not given much from the world - easy. Doing the same for those who are making life hard for other - not so easy.

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