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Study and Theory/

Dr. Yiftah Goldman

Exile and Monarchy in the Book of Esther

We thank Dr. Yiftah Goldman for giving us permission to publish his article, originally published on his website

The Book of Esther is perhaps the strangest text in the Old Testament. What is this story? A folktale? Tragedy or comedy? (Or perhaps a farce?). Who is its hero? Perhaps the Court Jew pimping out his beautiful niece in the king’s harem? Or perhaps the niece [1] herself, carrying out a calculated plan of temptation, deception and destruction? And what shall we say of the plot? An odd collection of coincidental, semi-arbitrary circumstances that carry an absurd tale beginning and ending at a feast, during which take place a beauty pageant, provocations in the palace court, a thwarted plan of annihilation, and to top it all off – a massacre.

The most difficult question of all is of course: How and why did this text find its way into the Bible? I will not answer this question here. I do not know who wrote the book, who decided to sanctify it and for what reasons. But I will try to say something about the importance of this story. I shall try to illustrate that the book speaks to us in a language different from that of the rest of the Bible’s books; that it is perhaps the text closest, most relevant to us as people of the modern era [2].


They are godless

A well-known fact, that the ancients had already considered, is that the Book of Esther makes no mention of the name of G-d, not even once. Hence, the sages of the Talmud called it “the book of the hidden face.” However, the claim that G-d hides his face does not express the depth of this absence. Not only does G-d hide in the book. It seems as though people are not even looking for him...

Unlike the stories of the Torah and the Prophets, the author of the Book of Esther does not attribute the events unfolding to G-d. Nowhere are we told that “G-d did such and such.” Furthermore, the heroes of the book, Jews and gentiles alike, fail to mention G-d even once. Their silence is unequivocal. Even in the places most appropriate for it, places where a totally secular person would use the name of G-d (like commonly used expressions such as G-d Almighty or Dear Lord); even there, the Book’s heroes do not utter a word about G-d.[3]

It gets even stranger: Not only do they avoid talking about G-d, they do not talk to him either. Nowhere, not even at the peak of the crisis, do they pray for salvation.[4] Nowhere, not even in the jubilation of the rescue celebrations, do they recite a prayer of thanksgiving.

To complete the picture, we shall add two more details: The historical period in which the story of the Book supposedly takes place is the Persian era, over a generation after the Koresh declaration (Achashverosh is identified with the Persian King Khshayarsha who is actually Xerxes, the son of Koresh’s daughter [5]. In Jerusalem, the Second Temple of the Shavei Zion (Returnees to Zion) has already been built. The temple, the main location where the connection between the Jewish People and its G-d is maintained, is not mentioned in the Book. What was the exact date on which the Jews were sentenced to be annihilated? What was the date on which the order by the king and Haman was given? The story of the Book is meticulously detailed. The date of annihilation was set at the 13th of Adar, but the order was sent almost a year in advance: On the 13th of Nissan [6]. The 13th of Nissan. One day before the Passover holiday. The decree was issued during the very days in which the Jews commemorate, each year, the great story of redemption: That of the Exodus from Egypt. We do not know how the Jews of Shushan were accustomed to marking Passover. Nevertheless, according to the Book, it seems as though they did nothing (one would suspect that they had no idea that those days were part of a holiday).

Such a complete and total silence with regard to all aspects of the connection between the Jewish People and its G-d cannot be coincidental. One gets the impression that someone went over the Book methodically and thoroughly erased any implicit or explicit mention or even hint of G-d.[7]

What the writer’s or editor’s intention was in this erasure, I don’t know. But the result is wonderful: The Book of Esther is the most modern story in the Bible; the only book the heroes of which modern man can identify with.


Modern times

I just said “modern man.” I did not say “secular man.” The question of faith or heresy is not important here, since even the most firm believer does not meet with G-d for a talk, and hear firsthand what he wants. Not even the greatest Rabbi will justify his rulings by claiming “that’s what G-d told me.” We would all agree (religious and secular alike) that a person having direct conversations with G-d belongs in an institution. We would all agree, religious and secular alike, that we live in a human world, with no direct divine presence, and that this is the world in which we conduct our lives. This is why the heroes of the Book are so close to us. Mordechai the Jew is more similar to us than to Abraham, Moses, David or Samuel. Of all the heroes of the Bible, he is the only one who does not justify his actions with the winning argument “G-d told me to.”

Our identification with the heroes of the Book does not necessarily mean we like them or agree with their actions. It is hard to like Mordechai, and in many parts of the Book it is hard to warm up to Esther either. We get angry with them, are disturbed by their behavior, doubt their motives, argue with them; however, we are able to do this precisely because they are so much like us. Our attitude towards Abraham, for example, is totally different. When we respond with shock to the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac, we say: Despite hearing the command of G-d, Abraham should have refused! You may, perhaps, turn G-d down, but you cannot remove him from the Sacrifice of Isaac story without emptying it of its meaning. Anger over the divine command still accepts it as such. Therefore, Abraham’s test is substantially different from anything we will experience in our lives. Unlike Abraham, Mordechai resembles us. Both he and ourselves have to get along in the world, without direct commands from the Almighty. Like us, the heroes of the Book have to solve their problems, choose their path, distinguish good from evil, and more – all by themselves. We may disagree with their decisions, just as we do not always like our own; but this is precisely what demonstrates the fact that we and the heroes of the Book are playing on the same field.


Existentialism in Shushan

The Book of Esther is a text of exile. Its heroes are stuck in exile, which we now realize is not just geographic or territorial. They are not just exiles from the country. They have been expelled from the Garden of Eden of the intimate relationship with the omnipotent, all-knowing G-d; taken from the shelter under the wings of the divine spirit. They live in an indifferent, alienated world; they must fend their existence and its meaning in this foreign land.

Nevertheless, what does this story mean to teach us? Like many others, I find the essence of the Book of Esther in the dialog (mediated by the messengers) between Mordechai and Esther, towards the middle of the Book.  Mordechai sends Esther to the king, to plead for the lifting of Haman’s decree. Esther tells him that whoever goes to the king without having been called upon is risking his life. Mordechai answers this with the following strange words: do not think that just because you are in the king’s house, you alone (of all the Jews) will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this.”[8]

The beginning is clear. Mordechai warn Esther not to delude herself, and think that she can evade Haman’s decree by hiding in the king’s house.  “For if you remain silent at this time...” said Mordechai to Esther, and we expect to hear the continuation: “... the decree will harm all of the Jews, and ultimately find you too, sitting in the palace.” But Mordechai says something totally different:  “relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place.” Does Mordechai have an alternative rescue plan? If so, why should Esther have to risk her life by going to the king? While we still deliberate on this, there comes the rest of the verse to add yet more wonder: “... but you and your father’s family will perish.” But if the Jews are rescued, then Haman’s plan of annihilation shall be aborted. How and why will Esther and her father’s family perish? And who is the “father’s family” of Esther, who was orphaned from both parents. Does this expression not indicate Mordechai himself?

We’ll start from the beginning. We have no reason to assume that Mordechai has an alternative plan. His verse about the rescue should be interpreted as an expression of optimism or faith. Mordechai does not presume to be Moses. He is not familiar with the devine plan, and does not speak for G-d. But he knows that people are not just the helpless victims of evil schemes or blind fate. They may act in order to change the decree, and usually have more than just one course of action. There is nearly a year until the sentence is carried out, Mordechai tells himself and Esther. If Esther will not save us then we’ll find a different plan. Mordechai’s approach may sound to us like the joke about the Jew who promised to teach the Polish landowner’s dog how to speak. But it can also be understood as the approach of a man who has confidence in himself and in his people (yes, and his G-d too).

If the rescue is assured, then the loss of Esther and her father’s family cannot be understood as a physical loss. If all the Jews are saved, then all the more so that the Jewish Queen of Persia shall be saved. Therefore, the loss that Mordechai speaks of is a spiritual or a moral loss; a loss of identity.

Identity means belonging. A man’s identity is determined by the things to which he belongs. There comes a moment, Mordechai tells Esther, where a man must decide for himself who and what he is. This decision depends on actions, not words. If you do not answer the call to save your people, you will not sustain any physical loss; rather, you will cease being a part of us. You must put yourself at risk, not because the Jewish People will be destroyed without you; rather, because by ignoring our fate you shall cease being a Jewess. Silence at the Jews’ hour of peril is your statement to yourself and about yourself.

Haman’s decree suddenly disappears from the story or, more accurately, recedes into the background. The decree will be canceled; canceled one way or another. What lies in the balance is not the Jews’ rescue but rather Esther’s personality. All of a sudden, the Book of Esther becomes an existential educational story. Do not think that the world revolves around you and is determined by your decisions, Mordechai tells Esther. The only thing wholly dependent on your decision is your own identity, your personality. If you do not join the struggle, it will be lost. Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus would not have put it otherwise.

And Esther? She understands the message very well, and answers Mordechai in the same token. Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Shushan, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish. Belonging involves mutuality, says Esther to Mordechai. If I really must risk myself in order to belong to my people, then my people must also show—if only symbolically—that it is mine and I am theirs, in other words: That my risk is their concern. Note: The three days of fast the Esther has ordered for the Jews of Shushan are not intended to violate Haman’s decree. They are directly associated with the risk hovering over Esther’s head only, for going to the king against the law (“fast over me”, says Esther). The fast is a symbolic act of solidarity that Esther requires of her people. This is an act directed towards people, not G-d.

So Mordecai went away and carried out all of Esther’s instructions. At this moment, Esther is changed, from an obedient girl into a commanding figure. From now until the end of the Book, she is the main heroine and she determines the unfolding of events. She has found herself; or, if we adhere to the existentialist terminology, she has created herself as a woman belonging to the Jewish People, and as a moral, responsible and active person. The writer of the Book puts it better: Esther put on her royal robes.[11]

[1] Actually a cousin, as it is written: Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This young woman, who was also known as Esther... (Esther 2:7)

[2] It should be noted already at the outset that I will not present any great new interpretations here. What I shall write is the outcome of years of non-methodological reading in the Midrashim and other compositions on the Book, as well as lectures given by me in various Batei Midrash (places of Torah study) over the years. I doubt if there is anything totally original here, except perhaps the similarity of the words of Mordechai to Esther to the existentialism of Sartre and Camus (see in the following) and perhaps not event this.

[3] The traditional interpretation holds that in Mordechai’s famous verse “relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place” (Esther 4:14) the speaker is referring to G-d. I do not dispute this. It stands to reason that this is what Mordechai meant. From our standpoint, the important thing is that he avoids saying so explicitly! (See more on this verse later on).

[4] The traditional interpretation customarily notes three fast days and the religious fast (ta’anit) as an appeal to G-d. Here too, as in the previous comment, the gist of my argument is, that the matter is not described this way explicitly, neither by the author nor by the heroes. The sinning people of Nineveh could explain their fast as an attempt to change the decree of G-d (Jonah 3). The Jews of Shushan were unaware of this.

[5] There is a certain complication with this matter, since Mordechai is identified in the Book as one of the men of Judea exiled from Jerusalem with Jeconiah, King of Judea. Hence, a choice must be made between two alternatives: Either the story takes place during the Babylonian exile, before the rise of the Persian Empire (and it is then not clear who the Persian King Achashverosh ruling over Shushan was) or that Achashverosh of the Book is indeed the Persian Khshayarsha (Xerxes); however, Mordechai would then have been about 100 years old at the time of the events.

[6] See: Esther 3:7-14

[7] By the way, in other versions of the story, preserved in Greek, both G-d and petitions to G-d by the heroes are mentioned.

[8] Esther 4:13-14

[9] Esther 4:16

[10] Esther 4:17

[11] Esther 5:1

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