Megillat Esther, a study in contrasts and a melange of seemingly random events, mirrors the inherent existential tension of the Jewish experience.
The contours of the story are well known. The coarseness of Achashveirosh is contrasted to Esther’s purity; Haman’s irrational hatred of the Jews is juxtaposed to Mordechai’s selfless devotion to the community. The Jews are well integrated into an ethnically diverse Persian society; overnight they are singled out and selected for genocide. A lottery, the epitome of arbitrariness, seals the Jews’ fate.
The king orders the execution of his queen on the advice of his minister and hangs his prime minister at the urging of his queen. A mindless beauty contest that has all the trappings of buffoonery results in a simple Jewish girl being plucked from anonymity and ending up in the right place at the right time to save the Jewish people. The king’s insomnia saves Mordechai from the gallows in the nick of time and plants the seed in Achashveirosh’s mind that Haman may not be as loyal as he would like the king to believe.
As each layer of Megillat Esther unfolds, the list of seeming coincidences, improbable occurrences, and dramatic reversals grows. To any perceptive observer, the studied randomness highlights the unseen presence of the Almighty, the master choreographer controlling all that occurs.
Megillat Esther is the sole book of Tanach in which God’s name is not mentioned. This too can only be understood as an irony which confirms His pervasive, but hidden, presence.
What on the surface seems to be merely a story of ambition, lust, and political intrigue, with its own dynamic, in fact has a deeper, unseen reality. God, though hidden from view, is ever-present and guiding all that transpires.
Indeed, etymologically, the name Esther is related to the Hebrew word for “hidden” as in “l’hastir.” According to the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 3:10), whenever Megillat Esther mentions “hamelech, the king,” the explicit reference is to Achashveirosh, but the implicit reference is to the King of Kings who, unbeknownst to Achashveirosh, is moving the saga to its inevitable conclusion.
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So much of Jewish history shares the same existential precariousness which underlies the Megillah’s narrative, and can be comprehended ultimately only by acknowledging God’s role in history. By any rational standard, when one views the span of Jewish history – the destruction of the two Temples, numerous exiles and endless persecutions – the continued existence of the Jewish people is an anomaly.
What is the nature of these events? Are they random occurrences subject only to the laws of history? If so, how does one explain the survival of the Jews and the vitality of the contemporary Jewish world? Ultimately, the historical record can be understood only by realizing that God, who may deliberately hide His presence, controls events and spreads His protective wings over us.
After all is said and done, what is the nature of Purim and the theme of Megillat Esther? Is the story a cause for unrestrained celebration or is it a cautionary tale which should command our sober attention? Consistent with the existential uncertainty that pervades the entire Megillah, the answer is both.
The Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, sensitive to the dialectic that often emerges from halacha, expounded on the inherent duality of Megillat Esther and the holiday of Purim. In discussing the requirement of reading the Megillah twice, once on the evening of Purim and then again the following morning, the Gemara (Megillah 4a) quotes two proof texts.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi cites the verse from Psalms, “O my God, I call by day but You answer not, and at night and there is no surcease for me” (Ps.22:3), while Rabbi Helbo in the name of Ulla brings a different verse from Psalms, “So that my glory may sing praise to You, and not be silent; O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever” (Ps. 30:13).
The Rav notes that these two verses are contradictory, yet each expresses a dimension of Megillat Esther. The verse cited by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi comes from Chapter 22 of Psalms, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” and reflects
the cry of total despair.
Our Sages tell us that Esther recited this Psalm on her way into Achashveirosh’s inner court, entreating the Almighty when all hope was lost. Diametrically opposed is the verse cited by Rabbi Helbo, which expresses jubilation and an unceasing hymn of praise and thanks to the Almighty.
The Rav further notes that the Gemara’s dictum (Megillah 14a) that the reading of the Megillah is equivalent with the recitation of Hallel, is consistent with Rabbi Helbo’s view. The Rav explains that both verses are accurate characterizations of Megillat Esther. The Megillah is both a tze’aka, a cry of distress arising from insecurity and fear, and shira, a hymn of joy that marks Purim as no less an occasion for celebration than the other festivals on which Hallel is recited.
The Rav highlights several minhagim which confirm this nuanced view of Purim. Rav Amram Gaon recounts (Seder Rav Amram Gaon, Goldschmidt, p. 104) that the accepted practice in the yeshiva on Purim was for the shaliach tzibbur to descend before the Gaon and the Av Bet Din and the leaders and the entire yeshiva to plead profusely and to recite Tachanun.
Rav Natronai Gaon was of the opinion that Lamnatze’ach should be recited on Purim. The Shulchan Aruch (Rema, O.C. 695:2) states that one should eat zer’onim, seeds, on Purim as a remembrance of the zer’onim, a food eaten in exile, that Daniel ate in Babylonia. The Gemara, as well (Megillah 13a), notes that Esther ate zer’onim in Achashveirosh’s’ palace, signaling her anxiety. All of these, posits the Rav, are clear indications of the elements of melancholy and distress which are themes in the Megillah that coexist with the dominant themes of joy and celebration.
The Rav also points to the commingling of Ta’anit Esther with Purim. The fast of Ta’anit Esther does not end until after the reading of the Megillah on Purim night. We would have expected that the fast would end, as all other fasts, with the conclusion of the day at tzet hakochavim. Yet we continue to fast during reading of the Megillah; we fast while reciting the equivalent of Hallel, further emphasizing the uneasy coexistence of the disparate elements underlying the evening’s observance.
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There are no two days in the Jewish calendar more dissimilar than Purim, a day of frivolity and feasting, and Yom Kippur, a day of awe and fasting. Yet the Zohar comments (Tikunei Zohar, Tikun 21) that the biblical name for Yom Kippur, Yom Kippurim, can be read Yom k’Purim, “a day like Purim.”
Having more in mind than a simple play on words, the Zohar is pointing to a common theme shared by both the sacred Yom Kippur and the joyous Purim. Both holidays revolve around a lottery.
The central dramatic motif in the Purim narrative is Haman’s lottery which decided the date of the Jews’ extermination, a motif whose message is that fate is ultimately arbitrary.
On Yom Kippur, the central ritual is the Avoda, the service in the Temple, and it is a lottery which determines the fate of two identical sacrificial goats, one to be offered to the Almighty on the altar and whose blood is sprinkled in the Holy of Holies, and the other to be ignominiously cast off a precipice in the desert.
Although Purim and Yom Kippur are very different in tone, they express the same theme. What may seem haphazard, ruthless, a mere lottery, can be transformed into holiness with the realization that the Almighty is behind the scenes directing all that transpires.
This relationship of Yom Kippur and Purim is highlighted in our High Holiday liturgy. The Tur and Avudraham point out a linguistic parallel between the Yamim Noraim Amidah and Megillat Esther. Each of the three paragraphs of the third berachah of the Amidah begins with the word “u’vechen.” This echoes Esther’s statement, “U’vechen avo el hamelech asher lo kadat,” expressing her willingness to risk her life by approaching Achashveirosh without first being summoned. Just as Esther felt fear and trembling before petitioning Achashveirosh, we too feel a sense of foreboding in approaching the Almighty on the Yamim Noraim.
There is another way in which Yom Kippur and Purim are similar. Both are days of matan Torah, the giving of the Torah. On Yom Kippur, the second tablets of the Ten Commandments were brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai. Purim also has the attributes of a day of matan Torah. The Megillah states (9:27), “they established and accepted, for themselves and for their children,” which the Gemara interprets as a reacceptance of the Torah akin to that of Mount Sinai (Shabbat 88a).
Maimonides states (Hilkchot Megillah 2:18) that Megillat Esther, alone among the Books of the Prophets and Sacred Writings, will not be nullified when Mashiach comes, but, just like the Five Books of Moses, will continue to exist forever. In fact, from the description of the Megillah as “words of peace and truth” (Es. 9:30), the Gemara derives (Megillah 16b) that the Megillah scroll requires sirtut, the straight ruled lines etched into the parchment, in the same manner as “the truth of Torah itself.”
The equation of Purim and Yom Kippur confirmed by the halachic identity of the Megillah with the Sefer Torah, further amplifies the common message that emanates from both days, that only Torah can give meaning and direction in the face of chaotic events, and that if one does not view the world through the prism of Torah, then all will appear arbitrary, nihilistic, and mere happenstance.
The Rav points to another statement in the Gemara that highlights Purim’s dual nature. The Gemara comments (Megillah 19a) that Megillat Esther is referred to as both a letter (iggeret) and a book (sefer). A “sefer” is written on parchment and is designed to last; it is durable and connotes permanence. An “iggeret” is intended only to transmit a communication; it is ephemeral and meant to be discarded.
Megillat Esther, notes the Rav, shares both of these qualities. On one level, it seems to be an interesting, but not very significant, narrative of a palace intrigue. It is an iggeret, a record of no lasting importance. On a deeper level, Megillat Esther is also a sefer, a profound book that expresses the fundamental principles of our faith, a book that testifies to our belief in Divine Providence even in the depth of the night of despair, when all hope seems lost.
It is singularly appropriate that the commentary of the Rav graces the new edition of Megillat Esther published by OU Press and Koren under the title Megillat Esther Mesorat HaRav – for the Rav, more than any other modern Jewish thinker, articulated and addressed the existential tensions which confront the Jew and characterize his struggle to find meaning in what appears to be an arbitrary universe.
The Rav devoted his life to grappling with the most troubling questions confronting the Jew – the existential loneliness that besets the man of faith, the dialectical tension in which the man of halacha exists.
The Rav addressed these and other similar issues in both his halachic and philosophical works. For the Rav, the goal was not to find answers to the questions but to live within the tension and the dialectic, and the only way to accomplish this was through
Torah. The ultimate response is that Torah gives meaning to an otherwise absurd existence.
This essay is adapted from Rabbi Genack’s preface to Megillat Esther Mesorat HaRav, just published by OU Press and Koren Publishers Jerusalem. As with the other Mesorat HaRav publications, the Rav’s commentary consists of excerpts from the Rav’s published writings as well as from audio tapes of the Rav’s lectures and shiurim, personal notes of shiurim taken by students of the Rav, and published sefarim written by students of the Rav. Also following the pattern of other of the Mesorat HaRav publications, there is a section of Reshimot, more extensive presentations of the Rav’s analysis of halachic material than the discussions included in the commentary.