Purim and M’gillat Esther

February 14, 2012Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber

Purim is just around the corner. Your congregation is making plans for the celebration, whether those plans include a carnival or a spiel, there is a sense of excitement in the air. These festivities are rooted in the Bible, more specifically in M’gillat Esther.

M’gillat Esther is found in the K’tuvim, Writings section of the Tanach. It is a relatively short book, only ten chapters. Yet it is the focus of a holiday and a tractate of the Talmud.  

On one level, M’gillat Esther is a simple story whose meaning appears to be obvious. Esther and Mordechai unite to save the Jewish community of Shushan. Yet as we explore the text more closely, we discover that it is not as clear as we encounter again the familiar story in a modern context. It is filled with references to power and violence, sexual improprieties and anti-Semitism.

M’gillat Esther introduces us to the world of Xerxes (fifth century B.C.E.), who is represented by Ahashuerus and ancient Persian society. A world filled with large harems and grand parties, with women, wine, food and entertainment. While the picture painted by the text may reflect Persian society, there is no other evidence which indicates that the other main characters (Mordechai, Esther, Vashti, and Haman) existed. Nor is there anything which documents the events as outlined in our text.

Let’s consider a few examples:

While it is probable that Vashti was summoned to appear before the king, it is doubtful that her refusal would have generated much of a response, and another woman from the harem would have been summoned in her place. The discussion of the fears of the princes (1:17-18) and the power of Vashti to influence other women appears to place more power on Vashti than she deserved and the resulting decree seemed absurd.

“Let the King appoint officers throughout the provinces of his kingdom. Let them collect every beautiful young virgin. Let them be brought to the fortress of Shushan. Let them be placed in the house of women.” (2:3). Even if Ahashuerus could not find a woman in the harem to elevate to queen, it is highly unlikely that he would have selected a queen in a beauty pageant.  Given the story which follows regarding Haman and his anti-Semitic sentiments, the climate was such that Esther would not have been welcome within the harem and Persian society, much less selected as queen.

While Mordechai advises and watches Esther from afar, he is aware of all the goings-on in the kingdom. Imagine the next scene, Mordechai is sitting by the gate to the city and overhears the plot to kill the king. By chance, Mordechai is in the right place at the right time and gets the information to Esther, thus saving the king. The plotters are hung and life goes on.

As we know, Haman’s power increases and he has the ear of the king. When Ahashuerus learns of the foiled plot against him and Mordechai’s role, Ahashuerus turns to his trusted advisor for guidance. Haman thinking he is the one to be rewarded designs a marvelous plan. (The farce continues.) You can almost image the look of horror on Haman’s face as he led Mordechai through the city.

Timing is everything in M’gillat Esther—as the story transitions to Haman’s plan to annihilate the Jews of Shushan.  Mordechai guides Esther as she plans to outwit Haman and ultimately to change the course of the story.

While so much of M’gillat Esther shifts from the believable to the absurd, from the logical occurrence to the moments of chance, there is something missing from a text which is linked to a holiday and a tractate of Talmud. Where is God in M’gillat Esther?  Throughout the ages, scholars and learners alike have asked this question and wonder how M’gillat Esther came to be part of the Tanach? Some might say that God is the mover behind all of the chance occurrences in the story and in the ultimate outcome. Or God was present when Esther fasted and planned her revelation for the king.

According to contemporary theologian Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, by placing the Book of Esther into the canon-despite a great deal of resistance- the people and the rabbis showed that they understood how God acts in history in the post-prophetic age. They came to realize that God does not operate as a force that crashes into history from outside. Rather God is in the center of life, present in the natural and in the redemptive process in which the human is the copartner. (Esther: A Modern Commentary, Leonard S. Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky, URJ Press, 2010, p. xii-xiii)

On Purim, when we hear the words and laugh at the shpiels, and we enjoy the repetition of M’gillat Esther and the theater of the absurd that it creates, we are also reminded that God is always present even when we are not expecting divine intervention.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah.

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