Thursday, July 31, 2014 Av 4, 5774

Megillat Esther: The Real Story of Exile

February 13, 2013 By:
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, JE Feature
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Purim is an extraordinary festival in the Jewish calendar. It can be distinguished from all the other festivals by the character it was granted in later generations, but mainly by its most primary source — Megillat Esther itself.
 
The different nature of the Purim customs, and of Megillat Esther, can be seen in comparison with Chanukah, the Jewish festival that is closest to it in time and meaning. Although the Books of the 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 they relate, in their main “characters,” and in the issues of religion and nation that loom in the background.
 
Compared with them, Megillat Esther seems to fall somewhere between the sublime and the ridiculous: the pompous, fickle Ahasuerus; the wicked, petty Haman; Esther, whose ascent to greatness is reminiscent of the Cinderella tale; 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 Megillah even once, not even as an appellation. It is therefore no wonder that, when the Mishnah was being assembled, our Sages differed as to whether or not to include this book in the Holy Scriptures.
 
The clue to all these peculiarities may be found in a singular feature — Purim is the Festival of Exile, and Megillat Esther is the Book of Exile. In a sense, Megillat Esther is the basic model of the life the Jewish people have lived in exile. Its entire story, which looks like a simple melodrama and a mythic tale, detached from reality, takes on a true, serious, even tragic meaning when looked at as the mirror of Jewish history.
 
Ahasuerus, the great king who rules over “a hundred and twenty-seven provinces,” who spends most of his days in drunken parties and in harems, who almost inadvertently issues a decree to destroy all Jews without considering all its possible implications — is he a creature of the imagination?
 
Almost no generation passes without us encountering him, in one form or another. He may indeed be an insignificant, ridiculous figure; but even foolish tyrants have brought terrible destruction to the Jewish people in exile.
 
As for Haman — who somehow became the de facto ruler of the land and decided that personal hatred and superstition are sufficient justification for killing all the Jews — one does not have to search very far to find him, again and again, very real and very threatening. 
 
In Megillat Esther, Haman is clearly a comic figure. However, throughout our history this character has been accompanied by many tears and much blood. Haman’s inciteful speech to the King about a certain people scattered among his kingdom, whose laws are different from those of every people, who do not keep the king’s laws — “and therefore the king should not suffer them” (Esther 3:8) — has not been greatly perfected during the 2,500 years that have elapsed since then. With minor variations, his example is repeated to this day by modern-day Hamans throughout the world. We no longer laugh at this pathetic figure. Today, we are afraid of him.
 
One can elaborate and illustrate how the strange, puzzling and ridiculous story of Megillat Esther — that might have been funny, had it not been so tragic — 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. Ahasuerus and Haman represent not only themselves, but are also prototypes for hundreds and thousands of others like them who grow out of the fundamental evil of Jewish existence in exile: a people who has no real support, whose rights are always forgotten, whose shortcomings will always be conspicuous, and against whom any ruler’s whim will be turned — the eternal scapegoat.
 
Megillat Esther, then, is the scroll of “the hiding of the Divine Face,” of the Jewish people in its exile, in which the greatest threats against its existence begin with what looks like a comedy. Even the miracles that occur during its rescue stem from the nature and “soil” of exile.
 
Only a very profound outlook, that sees the Jewish future, and is based on a strong, unshakeable faith, could have caused Megillat Esther to be included among the canonized books of the Bible. For this book is the essence of Jewish life in exile, and of the faith that, behind all external causes, hides the “guardian of Israel.”
 
The Megillah teaches us that the Jewish people must learn to live this sort of life, expecting miracles hidden within the tortuous, winding ways of history. 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 not help even those who sit in the king’s palace.
 
And that — despite everything — there is hope.
 
The story of Megillat Esther will continue as long as the exile continues to exist, and as long as the world persists in functioning with the “hiding of the Divine Face” and “the hiding of the Divine Name.” May the days soon come when we will no longer comprehend the seriousness of the Megillah, when we will be able to read it frivolously, knowing that it is just a tale from bygone times that will never return.

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