Hear Dora's perspectives on the Purim story!
On Tuesday, Jews across the world will be celebrating the festival of Purim. They will dress up in fancy dress, exchange gifts of sweets, eat triangular filled pastries called Hamantaschen, and maybe have a bit too much to drink. Children in Jewish schools and youth groups will abandon their usual lessons for fun activities, games and costume competitions. In short, a good time will be had! Jewish people will also seek to fulfil the four mitzvot (commandments) of Purim, which are as follows: eating a festive meal; giving charity to the poor, exchanging gifts of food, and listening to Megillat Esther (the story of Purim) being read.
The Megillat Esther, or the Book of Esther, recounts the story of Purim. The story is set in Babylon around 479 BCE. The Jewish people are living in exile after the destruction of the First Temple and their exile from Jerusalem. We find them vulnerable and scattered across the region, from India to Ethiopia, having gone from being a nation governed by Jewish rule and situated in their homeland, to being a diasporic people. King Achashverosh of Babylon, having had his wife Vashti exiled for her refusal to dance before the court, falls in love with Esther and takes her as his queen. Esther is Jewish and her cousin, the courtier Mordechai, advises her to conceal her Jewishness from the King. To keep a complicated story brief, Haman, the King’s evil advisor, persuades the King to decree that every Jew in the land be murdered. Together with Mordechai, Esther’s careful planning and great courage saves the day. She reveals her Jewish identity to the King at just the right moment, disaster is averted, the Jews are spared, and Haman is punished for his wicked plans.
This story of palace intrigue twists and turns and there are many interesting angles to unpack (seriously, read it for yourself). One remarkable fact that has been noted in the Jewish tradition is the absence of any explicit mention of God in Esther. Salvation comes from the ingenuity of human beings and not through divine intervention. There is a lot of discussion about what this means - whether God is present in the story but hidden (keeping with the theme of disguise throughout), or whether Esther is just more humanistic in its scope than the rest of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible). Perhaps Esther marks a transition from the God of Abraham and Moses, whose presence was direct and tangible, to the more subtle presence of God that we are familiar with today.
No matter how we interpret God’s hiddenness here, it is undeniable that in Esther we find a story of human agency and free will. We learn that human actions matter a great deal. Had things gone just a little differently, had plans fallen through, and conversations not been had or overheard… genocide would have ensued. In one sense, it highlights the delicate balance of history, and the fragility of human life - there is no guarantee our stories will have happy endings. But it also highlights the profound effects that resilience, courage and action can have on the course of history; the profound effect that each one of us can have on our own stories and the stories of those around us. Esther takes responsibility for her people and for her own life.
We find the Jews in Babylon, having lost their sovereignty, their temple, their priesthood, and the tangible presence of God in their everyday lives - having lost everything that had previously constructed them as a community. We can’t help fretting over what will become of the scattered remnants of this once-great nation. Yet this is not a story of despair, but a profound reminder of human resilience and dignity in the face of hatred and terror. As Yoram Hatzony points out in his book God and Politics in Esther, “Not since Pharaoh had Israel been so helpless before a nemesis as monstrous as Haman, and the task of defeating him remained. But now there was only one force that could bear the responsibility for doing it—man himself.”
Two of the mitzvot (good deeds) of Purim are giving to the poor and exchanging gifts of food. It’s fitting that we commemorate this story by taking actions of our own to make the world a better place. These acts construct community - not the kind the Jews had in Jerusalem, but the kind they had to construct for themselves. These mitzvot create relationships between us. When we give and take from other Jews, we are strengthening the Jewish community, and when we give and take from others, we strengthen humanity, and our place within it. We are required to take action even when we cannot see the face of God.
Purim sameach - happy Purim!