Those of us who grew up in the great age of Disney animated feature films (1990s) know movies such as The Little Mermaid and The Lion King to be classics. And they are. Their story lines are well known, their songs always on the tip of our tongues, and their characters unforgettable. But what is it really about these movies that made them so successful (other than the cutting-edge animation)? I’d argue that we could all see ourselves in the characters. Okay, maybe none of us are as evil as Ursella and her eels. But there is a part of each and every one of us that thinks the grass is greener on the other side, that wants to be a part of something we view as fascinating and intriguing, and feels trapped by the world we’re in.
Disney, though they are creative geniuses, did not invent the idea of a narrative with relatable characters and universal themes. Just take a look at the Bible. Open up to any page. It might not be as obvious to you as the colorful, animated films, but if you think about it, you’ll see yourself reflected in every page.
In light of the upcoming holiday of Purim, I recently started thinking about the connections between the story of Esther and Aladdin. Even without having seen Aladdin in probably over ten years, some of the parallels with the characters jumped out at me. Haman, the evil villain of the Purim narrative, is manipulative, wants to kill Mordechai, and is a power-hungry advisor to the king. Sound familiar? King Achashverosh, according to many interpretations of the story, is not aware of Haman’s plan, allows himself to be manipulated, and only seems to care about his beautiful wife, Esther, and how others perceive him. He may even have been in a constant state of paranoia and drunkenness. Aladdin’s Sultan is literally hypnotized by Jafar and gives Jafar his “ring”, presumably one of the most notable symbols of his power. Continuing on with the character parallels you can view Esther in Jasmine, Mordechai in Aladdin, Zeresh in Iago, and even God in the Genie. We’ll leave those deeper analyses for another time.
Once I thought past the character parallels (and saw the movie again), I realized that characters’ struggles are reflective of larger themes. Aladdin is not only about staying out of trouble, beating the bad guy, and falling in love. It’s about taking responsibility for your own destiny. It’s about identity. And it’s about freedom. Each one of these is a major theme in Megillat Esther.
Toward the beginning of the movie, Aladdin falls in love with Jasmine. He believes that he doesn’t have a chance with her because he is not a prince. The law says a princess must marry a prince. At first, Aladdin loses all hope. Then, after becoming the Genie’s master, he realizes that by becoming a prince, he can win Jasmine’s heart. (Later he’ll realize he just needed to be himself!) When Mordechai hears Haman’s decree to kill the Jews, he mourns. Esther doesn’t seem to think she can take action. When Mordechai reminds her that she is in the perfect position to take action, she does. And guess what, she saves the Jews. She doesn’t allow the authority of the king or a law that prohibits her from showing up unannounced to stop her. At the end of Aladdin, the Sultan tears up the law about only marrying princes just like Haman’s decree was edited to allow the Jews to fight back.
Aladdin, the street-rat, dreams of being in the palace. Jasmine, trapped inside the palace walls, dreams of venturing outside. They both struggle with their identity. They both try to hide their identity. They both eventually are forced to tell the truth. And they both live happily ever after. Following Mordechai’s instruction, Esther does not reveal her Jewish identity in the palace. It is almost as if she is living in a parallel universe, hidden behind the palace walls with her new identity. Interestingly, it is Mordechai again who convinces her to reveal herself to save the Jewish people. And guess what? When the king finally learns her real identity, he doesn’t kick her out! He grants her all her wishes, and Mordechai becomes an even more important figure in the government.
When Aladdin learns that he can make 3 wishes, he promises Genie that on his third wish, he will set him free. Ever wonder what those bracelet-type things on Genie’s wrist are? They’re shackles, symbolizing his bondage. That’s kind of how the Jews were for most of the Esther story. They were destined to be thrown around, bullied, and even killed. And at the end, they were saved, able to defend themselves, and took over Haman’s post. Still, it’s not just the Genie who is released from bondage. Both the Sultan and Jasmine are released from the strict rule of law about her impending marriage. The Sultan is released from Jafar’s spell. Aladdin is saved from a life of poverty and thievery. In this same way, the heroes of Purim are freed from themselves and from hiding behind the facade they had create for themselves.
So you see, Aladdin can teach us a lot, but Esther taught us about these things way before Aladdin came out in theaters almost twenty years ago. Purim isn’t just about the Jews being saved. It’s about us, today.
Don’t just continue on the course life is taking you because that’s where you’ve always been. It is up to us to take action for what we truly believe. We need to be ourselves and not try to be or wish we were someone else. Who we are is so much better than the person we sometimes pretend to be. And, finally, let us value the freedom that we are fortunate to have in this world. Let us not allow ourselves to become slaves to our cell phones, our favorite TV shows, our emails, and our stomachs. Let us learn to listen to our hearts and our brains so that we can be ourselves instead of hiding from ourselves.