iEngage: The Book of Esther: A manifesto for Jewish people-hood

It is precisely in times of crisis that we ‘lose’ our survival instinct and decide to fight back.

Purim costumes 390 (photo credit: Courtesy Marom Communications)
Purim costumes 390
(photo credit: Courtesy Marom Communications)
Megilat Esther is the most secular book in the Bible. It is the only story without God in it.
So, why was it included as Holy Scripture? Not because it represents the sanctity of God, but perhaps because it expresses the sanctity of shared Jewish identity. Jewishness in the Book of Esther has nothing to do with Torah and commandments; it is about peoplehood and kinship, not on God or keeping commandments. It is a manifesto of Jewish peoplehood.
The truth is that the Book of Esther contains not just one story but several, and if we look carefully, we can see that they present different and almost conflicting stories.
The first is a story of assimilation.
Think about our heroes: Mordechai, one of the nobles of the tribe of Benjamin.
What was his father’s name? Shimyi son of Yair, son of Kish – all are Jewish names; yet he is named after the God of Babylon – Mordoch. And Hadassah – the nice Jewish girl whom he adopted? Her name becomes Esther, after a Persian goddess, maybe even a Canaanite goddess originally. These two have achieved the “Persian Dream.”
They had a chance for advancement and they used it. When Ahashverosh announced a beauty contest that runs through his bed, Esther was there. The book doesn’t tell us if Esther was taken by force or if she came voluntarily, but it does tell us that she didn’t say anything.
If it was so bad to be a Jew, why didn’t she avoid the situation and say that she was a Jew? The scroll tells us that Mordechai “would not kneel or bow low.” Why didn’t he kneel? We are accustomed to thinking that he kneeled only before God, but this is a false interpretation, according to a plain reading of the scroll. It is true, though, that Mordechai bowed low only before the one and only – but not God, because as we’ve said, God is not mentioned in the scroll even once.
Who was the one and only person that Mordechai would have knelt to? Ahashverosh. Could Mordechai sit in front of the king’s gate and not kneel to Ahashverosh? Of course not. If he was so righteous, what was he doing there in the first place, eavesdropping on others? Mordechai was looking for a way to promote himself. To whom was he loyal? To Ahashverosh. Why didn’t he kneel to Haman? Because Haman was his personal rival. Haman was a new immigrant or a stranger in Shushan, and Mordechai wanted to be in his position.
Did Esther and Mordechai succeed? The answer is yes. They hid their Jewish identity and made it to the very top of the Persian regime. Some Jews told the story only to this point: Jews can make it if they give up their unique culture and identity. Jewish history is full of those kinds of examples, of Jews who renounced their Judaism in order to succeed in a foreign society.
But here comes the turning point.
Haman didn’t see Mordechai as an individual.
Haman saw Mordechai as a Jew, and he wanted to destroy all the Jews.
Thus, with a little help from Haman, Mordechai eventually came to understand that he was not only an individual, he was part of a nation. It didn’t matter how loyal he was, there would always be some people who would hate him because he was a Jew.
The most ironic scene in the scroll comes when the Jews have been sentenced to death. The megila says that all the Jews, including Mordechai, began wearing sackcloth and ashes. Esther saw that Mordechai was not following the dress code of the king, so she sent him appropriate clothing. Mordechai still could have given give up then. He could have turned his back on his people; he could have taken Esther’s offering and “gotten along.” Yet Mordechai sent a manifesto of Jewish peoplehood back to her: “Don’t 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.” (Book of Esther 4:13-14) That scene always reminds me of Theodor Herzl after reporting on the Dreyfus trial. Herzl was an 80-percent assimilated Jew. He didn’t hide his Jewishness but didn’t show it either. He was a senior journalist at the best newspaper in Europe. He had made it. But the shouts from the trial audience brought him back to his Jewish identity, and he made his choice – to devote his life to Jewish peoplehood. In the end, Esther did the same thing. She could have remained hidden in the palace. Remember, she had already given up her identity; she was a Persian queen. But she and Mordechai realized that the cost of keeping silent was too high.
“You and your father’s house will perish,” the text says. This doesn’t mean that they will come for you; it means that you will no longer be a part of the dynasty, the culture of your ancestors.
The result of keeping silent is self-annihilation.
From this moment on in the story, Esther became the hero of Purim.
She manipulated Ahashverosh and Haman and gained salvation for her people.
It is interesting that precisely in times of crisis we “lose” our survival instinct and decide to fight back, to choose a mission. This is one of the mysteries of the human condition. Thank God that today we – the Jewish people – are not facing a crisis like this; we are not in danger. The Book of Esther is an invitation to rediscover our people and to choose again – to choose to belong to the people of Israel and to strengthen Jewish peoplehood.
Dr. Shraga Bar-On is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute who is spending the academic year in the US.
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