Mar 9, 2009

A Ramah Wisconsin D'var Torah for Purim

A Ramah Wisconsin D'var Torah for Purim
Yael Richardson

God is ubiquitously absent from the entire book of Esther; the name of God does not appear once, no characters attempt communication with God and conversely, God does not intervene in any explicit way. God's absence in the biblical text stands in stark contrast to God's overwhelming presence in rabbinic accounts of the Purim story, where God is a main figure guiding the story along.

Take for example the passage at the beginning of chapter 6: "On that night the king's sleep was restless, and he commanded to bring the book of records of the chronicles, and they were read before the king." – and Ahashverosh is reminded of how Mordekhai informed him of Bigtan and Teresh's plan to assassinate him (2:21-23) and saved him. Based on text of the megillah, the following ideas are unclear and perhaps irrelevant: 1) the source of the king's restlessness, and 2) the link between his restlessness and reading the book of records (perhaps for Ahashverosh reading the book of records is like the equivalent of counting sheep). But within rabbinic literature, this incident is infused with meaning and relevance, and is interpreted as a result of divine intervention. According to various midrashim (Esther Rabbah 10:1; sifre d'aggadeta 'al Esther 6:1; bMegillah 15b), God sends a divine messenger to rouse Ahashverosh or sends a message through a dream, indicating that he has not paid his debt to someone, which causes Ahashverosh to pore through his records to find out who that person is.

In another example, Rabbi Yohanan states in bMegillah 15b: when Esther goes to convince Ahashverosh to save the Jews, "three ministering angels attended to her: one who lifted up her neck, one who pulled a thread of loving-kindness upon her, and one who extended the scepter." Here, Rabbi Yohanan attributes Esther's success and Ahashverosh's royal decision to divine influence. According to the peshat (straightforward meaning) of the text, it seems that really Esther and Mordekhai are to thank for their efforts in saving the Jews; which begs the theological question - where was God?

In the liturgical section "Al haNisim" (inserted into the amidah and Birkat haMazon) for Purim, again, God has a far more explicit role in the Purim story than in the megillah itself: "But you, in your great mercy reversed his plan [Haman's], spoiled his intention, and turned the tables on him, and they hung him and his sons on the tree." While in the megillah, it is Mordekhai and Esther who actively foil Haman's plans. (Similarly, "Al naHisim" for Hannukah also emphasizes God's position in the story rather than the human military victory stressed in the books of Maccabees.)

In Megillat Esther, the plot is driven by twists of fate, by being in the right place at the right time (or in the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on each character's perspective). Characters repeatedly act on the advice (and persuasion) of others (see e.g. 1:21; 2:19; 3:10; 4:17; 5:5; 5:8; 5:14; 6:10; 7:7; 7:9; 8:3-4), or act impulsively and without reason or justification. A series of circumstantial incidents build upon one another, leading to the Jews' imminent destruction and subsequently to their salvation and rise to prominence. One could almost construct a "Dayenu" for Purim: If Vashti hadn't infuriated Ahashverosh; if he hadn't chosen Esther; if Mordekhai hadn't heard about Bigtan and Teresh; if Haman hadn't seen Mordekhai; if Ahashverosh's sleep had been restful; if and if and if and if…

This reminds me of a children's book called "The Camel Who Took a Walk" by Jack Tworkov. The camel goes on a walk through the forest, and as he does so, each of the other animals in the forest plans to take a particular action at the same instant, each building on one another. But when the camel stops and decides to turn back, all the other animals are bewildered and do absolutely nothing.

What is the point of the story, and does the camel have a reason for turning back? One possible message is that one action of ours can ripple or have a domino effect on the rest of society – but is this image empowering or is it terrifying? Does it stress the unpredictability and futility of life, the idea that our plans and our work can be foiled at any moment by means outside of our control? Does the camel know what he's doing? Is he sufficiently aware of his surroundings to recognize the effect of his actions – or does he just feel like turning back?

The course of our lives is also driven by a series of actions, events, conversations, encounters. On the one hand, we could view these occurrences as a result of chance, timeliness, coincidence, that 'just happen to' happen – and render them utterly meaningless. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we could view such circumstances as divine will, that every action we take is holy and every development is deliberate and endowed with significance – which is a much more meaningful way to experience existence, albeit difficult (and also raises the issue of free will).

The peshat of Megillat Esther represents the former approach, while the midrashic treatments of the story signal the latter. This Purim, let us consider how we interweave God into the Purim narrative and into our own narratives, how much we empower ourselves and our own actions, and how we find meaning in the content of our lives.


Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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