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Tradition Today: Peoplehood with purpose

Megilat Esther is a book for pure secularists

March 5, 2010 21:05
4 minute read.
Tradition Today: Peoplehood with purpose

warsaw torah march 298. (photo credit: Ellen Friedland)

The multitude of carnivals and celebrations that make up Purim are now behind us. In the traditional phrase, we “increased our joy.” What other holiday allows us to let go and drop our inhibitions so freely? But once Purim is over, we enter into a different mood, the anticipation of Pessah, another great celebration, but hardly a time of merriment. This is a meaningful progression from the least “Jewish” holiday to the quintessential Jewish holiday.

Purim is a strange holiday, unique in the Jewish year. On it Jews do things that are usually not associated with Jewish conduct.

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Similarly Megilat Esther is a strange book in which God is never mentioned, mitzvot are never discussed or observed, while prayer and thanksgiving are totally absent. The only mitzva mentioned is the command – not by God – but by Mordecai and later Esther– to observe the days of Purim by feasting, merriment and gift giving (9:23, 27, 31). No wonder that it has been suggested that the purpose of the book was to explain and justify why the Jews of Persia celebrated such a strange holiday and attempt – successfully – to get others to follow their lead.

Pessah, on the other hand, based upon Exodus 1-15, is the story of Israel’s redemption from the land of bondage through the actions of the Almighty, as God had promised Abraham, taking Israel to Himself as the Lord’s special servant.

Actually the stories of these two holidays have striking similarities, even though they also have major differences. In both cases the Jews (or Israelites) came to a foreign country from the land of Canaan. At Pessah they came to Egypt as freemen, were enslaved and in danger of extermination. At Purim they came to Persia as captives and exiles, were quickly acclimated if not assimilated, lived in freedom, but then were in danger of extermination. In both instances they were rescued and redeemed.

At Pessah the danger came from Pharaoh, who wanted to enslave them all and kill the males. At Purim the danger is from Haman, who, with the foolish king’s approval, planned to kill them all. In both cases salvation came through someone involved with the royal house, the same house that had planned their extermination. Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s palace and then leaves to identify with his people. Esther enters the palace hiding her identity as a Jew, reveals it and saves her people.

But note the differences. On Pessah, salvation is the work of God. On Purim salvation comes about through Esther. Had she not won the beauty contest, who knows what would have happened. When Mordecai tells her, “If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish” (Esther 4:14), notice that he does not say that God will bring relief and deliverance. At Pessah God intervenes personally. At Purim there is no mention of God.

At Pessah the Jews do nothing – God fights for them (Exodus 14:13-14). At Purim God does nothing, Jews fight for themselves with the permission of the king (Esther 8-9). At Pessah they desire liberty in order to leave the country and journey to Canaan. At Purim they fight for life in order to stay in Persia even though this occurs in the time of Xerxes, 486-465 BCE, many years after Cyrus permitted Jews to return to Judea.

How can we explain these differences? One explanation often made is that the Book of Esther is a Jewish adaptation of a Persian story told at a carnival and therefore it does not have a religious nature. On the contrary, it specifically avoids it. But there may be more to it than that. The differences between the two narratives may reflect different outlooks on the meaning of Judaism and Jewishness. Being Jewish involves both religion and nationality, belonging to a people. Pessah is the story of salvation told from a religious point of view in which nationality is subsumed as part of the religion. The purpose of redemption is the creation of a people that will serve God, symbolized by the acceptance of the covenant at Sinai. Purim is exclusively the story of the Jews as a people. Their salvation comes so that they can continue to exist as a group. The emphasis is totally upon peoplehood.

The Megila espouses a positive attitude toward Diaspora life and voices no particular interest in Jewish life in the land of Israel. Life in Persia can be good so Jews should remain there. It also warns Diaspora Jews that they must be on the alert to defend themselves, but their ability to do so depends to a large extent on the good will of the ruler. It portrays Jews and Judaism exclusively from the nonreligious point of view, emphasizing only our status as a people. There is no higher purpose, just as there seems to be no higher being. In that respect it is very much a book for those Jews who seek a nonreligious version of Jewishness, true secularists, of which there are a great many today both here and in the Diaspora.

Pessah, on the other hand, reflects a religious point of view in which our destiny is shaped by God and our purpose is to be His people. We may embrace Purim’s emphasis on peoplehood and our right to life, just as we may enjoy its playfulness, but unless we progress to Pessah’s religious insight, our Judaism remains sterile.

The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.

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