Megillat Esther – The Book of the Exile

Purim is an extraordinary festival in the Jewish calendar. One can point to numerous details – in Halakha, custom, and historical attitude – that distinguish it from all the other festivals. This otherness is apparent not only in the character that was granted to this festival in later generations, but mainly in its most primary source: the Scroll of Esther itself.

The different nature of the Purim customs, and of the Scroll of Esther, can be seen even from its comparison with the one other Jewish festival that is closest to it, both historically and symbolically – Hanukkah.

Although the Books of Maccabees did not become part of the canonized Bible, they nevertheless belong to the philosophical and stylistic “milieu” of the Biblical books – in the events that they relate, in the character of the main figures, and in the kind of the religious-national issues that loom in their background. Compared with them, the Scroll of Esther seems to be almost on the other side of the gap between the sublime and the ridiculous: the pompous, fickle Ahasuerus; the wicked, petty Haman; Esther, whose ascent to greatness is reminiscent of the Cinderella myth; and the righteous Mordechai, who gets entangled in the court intrigues of an Oriental tyrant. Commentators have also remarked that God’s name does not appear in the entire Scroll even once, not even as an appellation. It is therefore no wonder that in Mishanic times, our Sages differed as to whether or not to include this book in the Holy Scripture.

The clue to all these puzzlements may be found in one single point: Purim is the Festival of Exile, and the Scroll of Esther is the Book of Exile. In a sense, the Book of Esther is the prototype, the basic mold of the life of the Jewish people in exile. The whole story of the Book of Esther, the figures and the events – which look like a simplistic melodrama and a mythic tale, detached from reality – take on a true, serious, even tragic meaning when looked upon as the mirror of Jewish history not only at the time of Mordechai and Esther, but also throughout Jewish history in exile.

Ahasuerus – the great king who rules over “a hundred and twenty seven provinces,” “upon the land and upon the isles of the sea,” who spends most of his days in drunken parties and in harems, who almost inadvertently issues a decree to “to destroy, to kill, and to cause to perish all Jews” without considering all its possible implications – is he a mere creature of the imagination? Almost no generation goes by without us encountering him, in one form or another. He may indeed be an insignificant, ridiculous figure; but even the most foolish and weak of tyrants can bring about a terrible upon the Jewish people in exile.

As for Haman – about whom there are various Aggadic tales (such as, “he was a hairdresser and bath attendant in the village of Kartzom for twenty-two years,”), and who somehow becomes the ruler de facto of the land, and decides that a personal hatred, or a superstition, or any other kind of nonesense, is sufficient justification for killing all the Jews – one does not have to search too far and wide in order to find him, again and again, very real and very threatening. Here, in the Scroll of Esther (and surely, in the Midrashic literature that ornates it) Haman is a comic figure; but in our history it is accompanied by so many tears and so much blood. Haman’s speech of hatred -“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws are diverse from those of every people, neither do they keep the king’s laws; therefore, it is not befitting the king to tolerate them” (Esther 3:8) – has not been greatly improved in the course of the 2,500 years that have elapsed since. In minor variations, it is repeated to this day by various Hamans: reactionaries and socialists, left-wingers and right-wingers throughout the world. We no longer laugh at the wretched figure of this street speaker, of this former hairdresser and bath attendant, or wall painter, or chicken-grower: rather, we are afraid of him.

One can go into greater detail and show how this strange, puzzling and ridiculous story of the Scroll of Esther – that, had it not been so tragic, could have been hilarious – has been repeating itself generation after generation in different parts of the world. The Midrash says that the protagonists of the Megillah are not just figures: rather, “Ahasuerus is the chief seller, Haman is the chief buyer,” and so on. All of them represent not only themselves, but are also prototypes for hundreds and thousands others like them. And they all grow out of the fundamental evil of Jewish exitence in exile: a people that has no real backing, a people whose rights are always forgotten, whose shortcomings will always be underscored; and that any whim of any ruler, or any change of state of mind, will always be turned against them, the eternal scapegoat. The Scroll of Esther, then, is the scroll of “the hiding of the (Divine) Face,” the scroll of the Jewish people in exile, in which the greatest threats against its very existence begin with what looks like a comedy, and even the miracles that occur in its rescue stem from the nature and soil of exile.

Only a very profound outlook, which on the one hand sees the Jewish future, and on the other, is based on a strong, unshakeable faith, could have caused the Scroll of Esther to be included among the canonized books of the Bible; for this scroll is the essence of Jewish life in exile, and of the faith that behind all external causes, hides the “guardian of Israel.” The Scroll teaches us that the Jewish people must learn to live this sort of life, and that it must expect miracles of this kind: not miracles like the parting of the Red Sea, done “by a mighty hand and by an outstreched arm,” but rather hidden within the tortuous, winding ways of history. And within all this, one must believe that “relief and deliverance will arise to the Jews,” and that in moments of distress, assimilation and masks will be of no avail, even for those who sit in the king’s own palace; and that despite everything, there is hope.

The story of the Scroll of Esther is to continue so long as exile continues to exist, and so long as the world keeps operating the way it does – namely, with the “hiding of the Face” and “the hiding of the Name.”

May there soon come the days in which we will no longer understand the serious part of the Scroll, in which we will be able to read it truly light-heartedly, knowing that it is but a myth from bygone times that will never return.