When 'Enemies' Meet
During the Everest climbing season last May, just 1000 feet from the top of the world, 24-year-old Israeli law student Nadav Ben-Yehuda noticed a 64-year-old Turkish man, Aydin Irmak, lying in the snow with no gloves, no oxygen, no shelter as other climbers streamed past him in their quest for the summit.
Climbers know instantly 26,000 feet is the infamous 'death zone' where the lack of oxygen is insufficient to sustain human life for any length of time. Exposure in that zone quickly leads to acute mountain sickness, hypothermia and, most often, death.
In the death zone of Everest, there is no time for inaction. In an instant, Nadav relinquished his summit bid and put all efforts into Aydin's rescue. Nine hours later, Nadav arrived at base camp having saved the life of Aydin.
What makes this story remarkable is that Turkey and Israel have long been nations with relations icier than the slopes of Everest. Nadav's act not only saved a life, but also bridged a distance between inimical countries. When asked why he relinquished his dream of conquest and instead stopped to help, Nadav answered, "Because we had shared a meal together."
Esther in the Court of the King
As the lectionary text (Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22) for this week unfolds, Esther, Haman and King Ahasuerus are sharing a meal together. Within hours of this wine being poured, one of them will be dead and an ethnic group, destined for death, will be spared. While I wish this story ended without a single death, the text challenges us to enter the courts of our own enemies, eat with them and encounter the beginnings of understanding.
Esther did not choose the court of the King. After Vashti's refusal to be objectified caused her to be deposed by the King, Esther's uncle, Mordecai, brought his orphaned niece to be considered as Queen. Ahasuerus, King of Persia, had eyes for greater and greater conquests. Esther, a young Jewish woman displaced from Jerusalem, had eyes for her people. The two of them were an unlikely match.
As the meal unfolds, Haman, an Agagite, who is plotting to kill all the Jews of Persia, joins Esther and Ahasuerus to eat and drink. Could there be any more tension in the room?
By this time, Esther has gained the trust of the King after reporting to him a plot to kill him that had been overheard by Mordecai and whispered to Esther. At this feast, Ahasuerus wants to return the favor. He says to her, "What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled."
Between the two of them, a mutual understanding aside from the biases of nations, hatreds and ethnic identities had been reached. Throughout Esther, many a cup of wine is poured at any number of fanciful feasts. But here, as 7:2 unfolds and they are drinking wine, the reader and hearer of the story can't help but hear something other than the clanging goblets of decadent feast. Here is a moment when two 'others' are lingering for a moment over a glass of wine and leaning in to understand each other.
As I read this story this week, I can't help but wonder if, in the courts of our Kings and Presidents and political leaders, there might be contemporary Esther's representing alternative voices, various religions, unforeseen tribes and marginalized cultures so that there might be a moment of surprising understanding. Here, with access to the King, Esther asks for the fate of her people to be considered so that Haman's plot will not come to pass. Her courage is laudable. But that courage comes first through a willingness to be present in the court of the perceived enemy. She has gained his trust, his ear, his desire to act on her behalf; only because she has allowed herself access and openness to the enemy despite her circumstances.
Ahasuerus acts to save Esther's people after hearing her earnest petition: For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king (7:4).
When Ahasuerus asks who is to blame, Esther bursts and names Haman. Then, in an incredible reversal among many reversals, Ahasuerus hangs Haman in the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai. Esther's people are protected and the day is celebrated as one to remember so that in future years, this day would be honored as the moment when, the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor (9:22).
Understanding 'the Enemy'
Recently there has been one too many deaths at the hand of a misunderstood enemy. Misunderstanding and hurt have escalated and spiraled into violence and protests reaching from Libya to Lebanon. This is the moment, from Tripoli to Tunisia, when we pray for world leaders to sit down at tables, break bread together and work toward renewed understanding. But sometimes it takes the one from the outside, Esther or Nadav, to call the attention of their countries to alternatives that bear witness to peace and the possibility for acts other than retaliation.
Ambassador Chris Stevens will be remembered for moments such as this. He was a statesman opposed to retaliation and all for transformation. Person by person, neighborhood by neighborhood he sought respect and understanding. He will be remembered as a diplomat who used his charm to disarm, always with an eye for peace.
With that same spirit, we need to court new understanding by reaching out to the one with whom our nations and religions are at odds, pour a glass of wine and break a piece of bread, and thereby turn sorrow into gladness, mourning into a holiday. By sharing a meal, we might just save a life.