March 2017 Shofar Article

A careful reading of the biblical Book of Esther will reveal some not so jolly facts. The difference between this reading and the fanciful story we like to tell is disquieting to say the least. This said, do not recoil too quickly. One may be able to read an inspiring ending into the story.

Scholars agree that the Book of Esther is an historical novel. It is fiction. Multiple contradictions and historical inaccuracies give away its pseudo-historical smokescreen. The book is thought to have been written in the 4th century B.C.E., when Jews lived under Persian rule.

Historical fiction though is usually written to deliver a message. Esther is no exception.

To begin with, actual Persian history tells us that the King of Persia chose his queens from a handful of aristocratic families. Did Queen Esther herald from one of these? It is unlikely because the Jews in Persia were a persecuted minority. So how did she end up in the contest? Could it be that her immediate family was so assimilated that no one could remember her Jewish roots? Since assimilation was a major challenge to the Jewish community in that time, perhaps the author was warning what it could lead to. Esther did not want to reveal her Jewish identity to King Ahasuerus. She wanted to “pass” even when the lives of her people were in danger of annihilation. It took a threat from her cousin Mordecai to force her to approach the King. Far from the Jewish heroine our fanciful narrative portrays her to be, Esther was at best a reluctant one. And there is one more message the author was relaying with Mordecai’s threat: don’t think your assimilation will protect you from an attack on the Jews either. Chapter 4:13 reads,” Think not that you shall escape in the king’s house more than all the Jews.” In other words, you will eventually be found out and hunted down like the rest of us. So you might as well take your chances now and save yourself along with all of us. Assimilation is a Jewish fool’s game.

Next, the text tells us that the King orders that the anti-Semite Haman be hung. This would surely be a reason for Jewish rejoicing. But not so fast. Ahasuerus’ motive for dispatching Haman apparently has nothing to do with concern for the Jews or their plight. When at a banquet Esther tells the King that Haman, his Prime Minister, wants to kill all the Jews, the King gets upset and goes outside for a moment. In the interim, Haman pleads with Esther for his life. Chapter 7:8 describes what happens next:” Then the king returned out of the palace garden…and Haman was fallen upon the couch where Esther was. Will he even force the queen before me in the house (says Ahasuerus)?” Thereupon the King orders Haman’s punishment. An honest reading of the text departs greatly from our fairy tale telling of the tale.  Ahasuerus may have been upset by Haman’s degree against the Jews, but this is not the reason given for eliminating him. The King orders the execution because he thinks Haman has attacked his queen.  

Finally, the story’s supposedly happy ending, usually rendered as “and the Jews were saved”, does not quite happen as normally told. Though Esther asks the King to rescind his decree calling for the death of the Jews, the King, instead, sends out a new order allowing the Jews to defend themselves against the dictated attack. This is not much of a gift. What if the Jews were decimated while defending themselves? It turns out that we do survive and decimate much of the non-Jewish population along the way. So now the cost of our survival sets the stage for even more hatred to be directed towards us. We lose in either case.

What is the reason for the Purim celebration then- that a totally assimilated Jewish queen reluctantly asks her husband to save her people from attack and he responds by allowing them only to defend themselves and possibly arouse more anti-Semitism in the process? This set of facts do not add up to celebration. Unless…

What if we look at these elements of the actual story from a different perspective? Consider this: the reason we celebrate is that against impossible odds, including a reluctant queen, a king who could have cared less about the Jews, and a decree that could have led to our demise and had to have inspired more hatred against us, we still survived. And why did we survive? We survived because in a biblical book that never mentions God by name, God was present and made the impossible happen. Remember that when Mordecai forces Esther to take a chance and approach the King, Mordecai says to Esther,“…if you altogether hold your peace at this time, then relief and deliverance will arise to the Jews from another place…” Could Mordecai have meant God? I think so.

How else can we explain our improbable survival to this day? We, like Esther, have to do our part in sustaining our People. But we have to believe that there is also an unseen Force that helps us out when we can no longer do it alone. Happy Purim everyone!

– Rabbi Richard Birnholz