The Purim story shows us that God expects the Jewish people to take the initiative, to act for themselves and to rely on their own talents and skills in order to ensure their long-term survival.
By Richard Mather
Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) narrates the story of a Jewish girl who becomes Queen of Persia and saves the Jewish people from a genocide decreed by the wicked Haman. The story takes place in 473 BCE. The Persian kingdom is a huge and sprawling empire, and all the Jews are its subjects. When King Ahasuerus deposes Queen Vashti for disobedience, he arranges a beauty parade to find a new consort. Esther is chosen and she becomes the new queen of Persia. However, she does not reveal her Jewish identity.
A wicked man called Haman is appointed first minister of the Persian empire. Haman becomes enraged when Mordechai, leader of the Jews, refuses to bow to him. Spitefully, Haman convinces the King to issue a decree ordering the genocide of all the Jews on the 13th of Adar. The date is chosen by lottery, hence the word Purim, which means “lots,” from the word Hebrew word פור.
Esther takes practical action. She reveals her Jewish identity to the King. Haman is hanged and Mordechai is appointed first minister in his place. A new decree granting the Jews the right to defend themselves against their enemies is issued. On the 13th of Adar the Jews kill many of their enemies. On the 14th, they rest and celebrate. The Jews of Shushan wage war on both Adar 13th and 14th, and rejoice on the 15th, which explains the celebration of Shushan Purim in Israel on the 15th.
The holiday of Purim is a time of merriment. Celebrants are allowed to drink alcohol to the point where they are unable to differentiate between the phrases ‘Bless Mordecai’ and ‘Curse Haman.’ Another feature of Purim is the Purimspiel, which is a dramatic retelling of the story of Esther, often involving costumes, masks, music, dance and humour. Traditionally, the Purimspiel was performed by poor students, actors and acrobats. These days, the Purimspiel is often acted out by children who dress up as characters from the story.
But there is a darker side to Purim. Megillat Esther depicts an existential threat to the Jews. Genocide hangs over them like the sword of Damocles. The Jews are saved and their enemies slain, not because God intervenes but because the Jews themselves take decisive action to eradicate the threat. Purim seems to be about the role of Jewish self-reliance in a universe where God has apparently disappeared from the stage.
This is why the story of Esther is particularly relevant in our post-Holocaust era. For many people, God’s goodness cannot be taken for granted. Elie Wiesel, the prize-winning writer and Holocaust survivor, has refused to shy away from the difficult subject of God’s absence during the Shoah. Perhaps his most famous book is Night. But for me, one of Wiesel’s most striking works is his play The Trial of God.
The Trial of God is set in 1649, and is a Purimspiel within a Purimspiel. But it is not the kind of Purimspiel we would recognise. This is a brief outline of the story:
Three wandering minstrels, three Purimspielers, come to a city called Shamgorod in the Ukraine. It is Purim eve, and they want to perform a play in order to get food and drink. The minstrels are unaware that a recent pogrom has killed all of the local Jews except for Berish the innkeeper and his daughter Hanna who was gang-raped and is now in a state of nervous collapse.
But the minstrels insist on performing and finally Berish relents and says, ‘All right. Under one condition – that I will give you the idea. The theme will be a “din torah,” a trial of God. I want you to indict God for what he has done to my family, to my community, to all these Jews.’ The performers accept. In the first act the decision is made to hold a trial. In the second act there is a problem because there is nobody to play the role of God’s attorney. In the third act an attorney is found and we have the trial itself.
Wiesel’s play is based on an event that occurred in Auschwitz. According to Wiesel, three rabbis – all erudite and pious men – decided one winter evening to indict God for allowing his children to be massacred. The trial at Auschwitz lasted several nights and culminated in an unanimous verdict of guilty. And then, after a few moments of silence, one of the rabbis looked towards the heavens and said “It’s time for evening prayers.”
Given the subject matter, it is not surprising that Wiesel’s Purimspiel rejects the usual carnivalesque atmosphere of Purim. Mendel, one of the Purim minstrels, frequently asks the question, ‘And where is God in all of this?’ To which Berish the innkeeper answers: ‘Why don’t you ask where Berish is in all this? Let me answer you that one. God sought me out and God struck me down. So let Him stay away from me.’
In Wiesel’s text, God is accused of hostility, cruelty and indifference. Over the course of the trial, a number of arguments are made, both for and against God’s guilt. Wiesel’s play ends darkly, with the victory of Satan (who is God’s defendant) and the imminent massacre of the town’s remaining Jews by a mob of bloodthirsty gentiles.Megillat Esther is the only book in the Tanakh – except for Shir Hashirim or the Song of Songs – that does not mention the name of God. The Trial of God, however, makes God the central character, although like Godot in Beckett’s famous play, He never actually makes an appearance. And while Purim is generally a time of merriment, Wiesel’s play plumbs the depth of theological inquiry, asking, ‘Where is God in all this?’
In a world where the Holocaust was allowed to happen, the question of ‘Where is God in all this?’ remains pertinent. Of course, even before the Holocaust, Jewish experience was one of exile, alienation and violence – a sign perhaps that God’s power has rarely been some awesome force. Indeed, for much of history, God has hidden his face from us. The concept of hester panim (“hiding of the face”) is sometimes used to explain the absence or eclipse of God during times of suffering. The concept of divine concealment is based on words from Sefer Devarim: “I will become very angry at them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them. They will be devoured, and plagued by many evils that will distress them, and will say, ‘Do we not suffer because God has left us?’.”
In the case of Purim, the importance of hester panim is implied by the name of the heroine. Note the similarity between the words hester and Est(h)er. The Babylonian Talmud tractate Hullin 139B states, “From where does the Torah bring the name Esther? From the verse ‘But I [God] will surely conceal my face [“haster astir panai“] on that day for all of the ill that they have done–for they turned to other gods.”
In our post-Holocaust era, it can be difficult to subscribe to the notion of God as a transcendent Supreme Being who intervenes in history. Doesn’t the Esther story, and the story of the Jews in general, suggest that God’s power is not some ‘top-down’ affair but is conducted through the actions of individuals and groups, like Moses and the Israelites or Theodor Herzl and the First Zionist Congress? Isn’t it perhaps the case that God’s power is channelled through the Jewish people themselves?
In 1948 when Palestine’s Jews declared independence, there occurred a unique rupture in the history of colonialism and imperialism. But this declaration also ruptured the long-held hope of a messianic king or priest who would gather the Jewish people and end the exile. It wasn’t God or the Messiah who restored the Jewish nation. It was the Jews themselves. To paraphrase Rabbi Eleazar (Megillah 15a), the moment the Jewish people decide to cloak themselves in royalty and declare independence is the moment in which the Jews cloak themselves in the spirit of God.
This is why I strongly disagree with those ultra-religious Jews in Israel who refuse to serve in the army because it detracts from Torah study, which (they say) is Israel’s best protection. Unfortunately, history shows us that no amount of Torah study or prayer prevents pogroms or genocides; nor will Torah study protect the State Israel from future attacks. Likewise, it’s wrong of anti-Zionist religious Jews to argue that the State of Israel is a usurpation of the Messiah’s role. My answer to them is simple: for too long we waited for the Messiah, but he never came. And he may never come for one simple reason – because the Jewish people themselves already function as a messianic community.
In other words, it is not God or Messiah, but the Jews themselves who determine what to do, and when and how to do it. As Rabbi David Blumenthal says, God “has all eternity to make up His mind. We do not have all eternity; we have now.” The example set by Esther shows us that God expects the Jewish people to take the initiative, to act for themselves and to rely on their own talents and skills in order to ensure their long-term survival. The success of the State of Israel and the fact that the majority of Jews are prepared to defend themselves in a world full of Hamans is testament to the spirit of Megillat Esther.