Tradition Today: The whole megila

Scholars believe that Esther was written to give a Jewish slant to a Persian holiday Jews already observed.

Part of a Scroll of Esther from Alsace 390 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Part of a Scroll of Esther from Alsace 390 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Every time I read the Book of Esther I am astounded anew.
“Did the author of this book really expect us to take it seriously?” I ask myself. “Are we to believe the whole megila? Can it be that a king could be so clueless, that such a tragedy could be averted so easily, that there just happened to be a Jewish queen? There are just too many coincidences to make it believable. Is life really like that, or is it not more likely to end in disaster?” We have enough examples of the latter in Jewish history, including the Holocaust, which can be compared to the Purim story in many ways – except that there was no happy end. The Haman of that story may have died as he deserved, but not until he had achieved one third of his goal of destroying every Jewish man, woman and child.
One is also astounded at the breach of all accepted Jewish practices found in this story. The heroine enters into marriage with a pagan, and does so at the urging of her uncle Mordecai, identified as “the Jew”! Before the marriage, she undergoes a kind of preliminary test that sounds anything but innocent. Who performed the marriage? What about kashrut at all those banquets the story describes, including the two that Esther herself sponsors? And prayer – where is it? Esther declares a fast, but not prayer.
More than that, where is God? No one prays to God, no one even thanks God for the eventual deliverance. Even the declaration instituting the celebration of Purim is devoid of any reference to Divine deliverance: “The Jews undertook... to observe these days in the manner prescribed” (Esther 9:27) is all it says. No wonder the Sages added all of these elements in their midrashic interpretations of the story and canonized this in the prayer recited on Purim: “You [God], in great mercy, thwarted his [Haman’s] designs, frustrated his plot and visited upon him the evil he planned to bring on others,” something never mentioned in the megila itself.
Many biblical scholars have therefore concluded that Esther was written to give a Jewish slant to a Persian holiday that Jews already observed. H.L. Ginsberg, for example, wrote, “The Book of Esther may be described... as a mock-learned disquisition to be read as the opening of a carnival-like celebration.” If so, religious concerns and mention of God would have been totally out of place.
NEVERTHELESS, THE story does have a serious side. Some traditional commentators, especially those of a mystical inclination, have seen the story as teaching that there are times when God acts in a hidden way rather than a way that is easily seen, as occurred in Egypt. They point out that even the name Esther in Hebrew is related to the word meaning “hidden” – nistar.
My own view is that the author indeed had a hidden meaning, but it was that the story was so outrageous as to indicate that one should not depend on such coincidences; rather, one must take every action possible when Jewish lives are in danger. It is forbidden to wait for miracles and miraculous intervention.
For all that the story is “mock-learned,” there is one section that is so serious that it cannot be ignored. When Esther hesitates to place her life in danger by going unbidden to the king, Mordecai says to her, “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, 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 4:13-14). Mordecai has faith that Jews will be saved – perhaps meaning that the Jewish people as such will survive – but those who do nothing will perish. It is the duty of each Jew to stand up and defend Jews when their enemies attempt to annihilate them. They must not be silent at such a moment. That lesson is as important today as it was when first uttered.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).