Where is God in Megillat Esther?

Image: A masked person. Photo by madeinitaly.

The name of God appears nowhere in the text of the Book of Esther [Megillat Esther.] What are we to make of this? Is Purim a godless holiday?

There are a number of ways to read this absence. Chapter 9 of the scroll says that the story was copied onto scrolls and sent far and wide to be read by the Jews. Perhaps the writer (traditionally, Esther herself) felt that it was better not to put scrolls with holy words into general circulation where they could be desecrated. So she chose to omit the name of God, in order to protect the holy Name.

However, modern scholars are fairly certain that Esther is a novella, a fiction, not a history. It has a number of assertions about the Persian court that any Jew of the time would recognize as fake. It is more likely a parable about life in Diaspora.

If that is the case, then the absence of God’s name perhaps has a more deliberate meaning. Jews in Diaspora do not live in Jewish space. The Jews of Megillat Esther live in Persia, under the rule of a Persian king and his court, and as the story illustrates, powerful men can turn on them at any time.

When this happens to Jewish communities, it is natural to ask, “Where is God?” And the Book of Esther directs us to ask that question: where is God, when our enemies slander and betray us, when they imprison and kill us for no good reason other than hatred?

We cannot “see” God in the Esther text. God is apparently missing, and in the context of this story, that poses a theological question: Where is God?

Esther and Mordecai do not have the luxury of waiting for God to appear. They do not have the luxury of miracles. This is not a Red Sea moment, when the waters pass and we all walk to safety. Rather it is like so many other moments in Jewish history, when God seems to be somewhere else, and it is up to good men and women to improvise salvation. Esther married a non-Jew, and Mordecai was the architect of the massacre in Chapter 9. We can disapprove of them if we wish, but once Haman turned on them, they had very few alternatives.

Where is God in the text? We can say, “Thank God!” that Esther was queen, married to the heathen Ahasuerus. We can say, “Thank God!” that Mordecai saw a solution to the problem of the king’s ring and seal. God IS in the text, in the courage and ingenuity of Esther and Mordecai!

Where is God? God resides, as always, in the hearts and hands of good men and women.

Enjoy your Purim!

 

 

 

Purim’s Coming!

Image: Three Jews celebrating Purim: a Cubs fan, a very silly rabbi, and a cowboy. Photo by Linda Burnett.

At last! Rosh Chodesh Adar Bet arrives at sundown on Wednesday, March 9!

In a leap year, Adar Aleph is the “added in” month, so we have to wait a little longer for Purim. Purim this year (2016) will begin at sundown on Wednesday, March 23, aka 14 Adar Bet, 5776.

Two weeks is not too early to begin planning for Purim. Mitzvot require planning! Some things to do–  follow the links for more information on each mitzvah:

  1. Plan our tzedakah to feed the poor. (A Purim mitzvah)
  2. Plan our mishloach manot, gifts of food for friends, aka Purim goody bags.
  3. Plan our festive meal (yes, another Purim mitzvah!)
  4. Plan where we will hear the megillah [Scroll of Esther] If you want to hear the whole scroll chanted, it is wise to phone ahead. Some synagogues have only a Purim shpiel.
  5. Plan costumes for yourself and your family! (Not a mitzvah, but still fun.)

Also, while officially we don’t begin preparation for Passover until after Purim, in reality many Jews begin the Passover prep before they put on their masks. If you want to start thinking about that process, I recommend taking a look at Cleaning for Passover: Begin in EgyptIt’s a guide especially for those who have never kept Passover before, or who find the prospect of cleaning for Passover overwhelming.

Shake off those winter blues, and get ready: Purim’s coming!

Drinking on Purim: A Mitzvah?

Image: Two shot glasses full of liquor. Image by saragraphika.

Every year I have the discussion with someone: “Rabbi, doesn’t it say in the Talmud that we HAVE to get drunk on Purim?”

This is not a trifling matter. On the one hand, that is a traditional understanding of the command that we celebrate on Purim. But on the other, we now know more about the dangers of over-consumption of alcohol.

Jewish tradition both encourages the use of wine for celebration, and encourages moderation in the use of alcohol. Shabbat and holidays are welcomed with a kiddush toast. The Passover seder requires four cups of wine. Many life cycle events include a cup of wine: even the baby receives a taste of wine at his bris!

On the other hand, our tradition has warnings against alcohol abuse. Noah shames himself and is shamed by his children for becoming a drunk. A midrash speculates that the sin of Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, was that they entered the Tabernacle drunk. (Leviticus 10:1-11) A line in Sanhedrin 70a quotes Rabbi Meir as saying that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was actually a grape vine, because nothing brings so much woe to human beings as wine.

So, to return to the issue of Purim and drinking, the discussion is set in motion by this passage from the final chapter of the book of Esther:

Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor. – Esther 9:20-22

In Tractate Megillah 7b, the rabbis focus on the phrase “observe the days as days of feasting and joy.” Exactly how are we to observe it, they wonder?

Rava said: One is obligated to become inebriated on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.”

So there it is, the famous line from the Talmud. However, notice (1) that that line is broken out from its context. Also (2) a key word in it is a bit less clear than it seems: the word for inebriated requires clarification from Rashi, who tells us that it means inebriated. The word itself is associated with fermentation, according to Jastrow (a dictionary of the Talmud.)

Then another story, not often quoted with the famous line, immediately follows:

Rabbah and R. Zeira joined together in a Purim feast. They became inebriated, and Rabbah arose and cut R. Zera’s throat. The next day he prayed on his behalf and revived him.

Next year he [Rabbah] said: Will the master come and we will have the Purim feast together. He [R. Zeira] replied: A miracle does not take place on every occasion. –Megillah 7b

 This story seems to warn against drunkenness. Two rabbis get drunk together, and one cuts the other’s throat. (The Aramaic is vivid: literally, he shekhts him, ritually slaughters him.)  Rabbah prays, and Rabbi Zeira is returned to life. The next year, Rabbah invites R. Zeira to celebrate with him again, and this time R. Zeira demurs with the warning that one cannot depend on miracles.
So: is this a story warning in general against drunkenness, or is it a story warning that the “drink a lot on Purim!” interpretation is incorrect?
Let’s loop back and look at Rava’s line from Megillah 7b again:
Rava said: One is obligated to become inebriated on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.”
How else might we understand this, if not “drink lots on Purim”? If we take a clue from Jastrow, is there a way to do this by fermenting, by studying until the two statements are one?
What if we were to ask, “Are there any ways in which Haman and Mordechai are alike?
My initial reaction to this was to laugh, it is such a ridiculous question. One is the bad guy and one is the good guy! They aren’t anything alike!
But on second thought, read the book of Esther.  If we read it not in its sanitized version we tell children but the way it is written, Mordechai presses Esther to participate in the search for a new queen. This means joining the harem and becoming a one night stand for the king in hopes of securing a permanent position. In other words, Mordechai pimps his own neice, possibly to enhance his own power: not very moral at all.
But even more so, in chapter 9 of the book of Esther, Mordechai proves as bloody-minded as Haman. Haman and all his sons are executed on Mordechai’s order, as well as 5,000 Persians, and on the next day another 70,000 are executed.  This is at least as many dead people as Haman had ordered.
So how different are Haman and Mordechai? There’s a reason we don’t like to read chapter 9.
I do not know whether the story about Rabbah and R. Zeira is there to cause us to question Rava’s strange words. However, I do know that whenever someone says to me, “There’s a commandment to get drunk on Purim!” my reply is always, “Oh, really?”

 

 

Purim, Pi, Patrick, Passover!

OK, I admit it: I love alliteration, and that title was just too good to pass up. We just celebrated Purim. Pi Day is today (yay! Pie in the oven right now!) St. Patrick‘s Day is soon, and all this takes place in the midst of Passover preparations (there’s another P!)

This does have a point.

I celebrate Purim and Passover specifically because I’m a Jew. I understand myself to be obligated to celebrate them. They are required for me, optional for any Gentiles who wish to celebrate, although they are certainly welcome at my table.

I celebrate Pi Day with other members of my Jewish community. We celebrate it because (1) we love pie,  (2) we love puns and similar geekery and (3) some of us love math. I would never have met any of those friends were it not for the fact that we happen to go to the same synagogue. We weren’t friends before synagogue; we are dear friends now. Pi Day is neutral religiously, but it offers the added Jewish benefit of using up flour before Passover.

Which brings me to the other P: Patrick. St. Patrick’s Day is a bit more complicated. Start with the “Saint” bit. First, Jews do not celebrate saints’ days. Not our tradition. There are people in our past whom we revere, but we tend to call them tzaddik (righteous person) or chasid (pious person) or we use their names with a certain hush. Second, Christian saints in past centuries were often hostile to the Jews, to put it mildly: see the writings of Ambrose or John Chrysostom. Third, certain Christian holidays became days with excuses for being nasty to Jews: that’s where Patrick gets into the mix.

I am a Jew of Irish-American descent. That ancestry is an important slice of my identity, as important in its own way as “Californian” or “expatriate Southerner” or “queer.”  It’s so important that had one of my sons been a daughter, she’d have been named Bridget. My grandmother’s stories, handed down from her grandmother, about the Famine and our arrival in America were key narratives in my childhood. Traditionally, St. Patrick’s Day is the day to celebrate that heritage.

Unfortunately, when I wear my bit of green on March 17, I am sure to hear a story or three from Jewish friends and colleagues about their childhood experiences of St. Patrick’s Day. Their memories are of hostility from Irish-Americans that day: pinching (“Where’s your green?”) and excuses for the ongoing antisemitism of the schoolyard: people throwing pennies at the Jew, etc. I don’t recall ever witnessing such as a kid, but since I was part of the majority (at school, not in the culture) I may well have overlooked it.

I still wear green on March 17. I embrace the contradictions, because face it, I embody them. I eschew the leprechauns and green beer because they only play into the worst stereotypes: there is more to Irishness than superstition and alcohol. I don’t celebrate the conversion of Ireland, but I celebrate Irish culture, Irish art, and Irish literature. I celebrate Irish-American grit, and stubbornness, and enterprise. I celebrate my grandmother and her stories and her love.

And yes, as a Jew, it’s complicated, that particular P.

Pi, anyone?

Esther, Upended

The Triumph of Mordecai by Pieter Lastman, 1624.
The Triumph of Mordecai by Pieter Lastman, 1624.

I recently read an article by Ayalon Eliach in Ha’aretz that offers a new and unique understanding of the Book of Esther.

Hang around the Jewish world long enough, and you will eventually meet someone who tells you that there’s a “commandment” in the Gemara to drink yourself silly on Purim, specifically to drink until you don’t know the difference between Mordechai and Haman, two characters in the Esther story.

Said Rava: A man is obliged to intoxicate himself on Purim, till he cannot distinguish between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.” – Megillah 7b

The context doesn’t help: no reason is given that one should drink until one cannot tell the “good guy” from the “bad guy” in the story. Given all the pronouncements against drunkenness elsewhere in the Talmud and indeed in the Torah, it is extremely odd.

Eliach went looking for the reason Rava might have said such a thing. He looked into other statements by Rava, and learned that this one sage took a very dim view of Mordechai, reading the Esther story in a completely different way than is usual. In Rava’s reading, Mordechai does anything and everything for access to power, prostituting his niece in order to have a secret advantage at court. Mordechai’s lust for power came from arrogance, not piety, in this reading: he wouldn’t bow to Haman because he wasn’t going to bow to anyone. And by that act of arrogance, he endangers the entire community, bringing a pogrom down upon the heads of the Jews of Persia. According to Rava, Mordechai cloaks his ambition and arrogance in piety. Then Eliach draws his conclusion: perhaps the real message of Esther is to watch out for the Mordechais of this world, who claim to be pious but for whom piety is just a means to their real goal, power.

In summary, what Eliach found was that for Rava there was no difference between Mordechai and Haman. Both of them are bad guys: Haman for all the usual reasons, but Mordechai because he gambled with the safety of the Jewish people and with his niece.

There’s more in the original article (if you are intrigued, read it!) but I bring it up here for two reasons:

  1. It’s the most inventive reading of Esther I’ve seen in a while, and
  2. It illustrates beautifully that there is no single “correct” reading of the Bible.

One of the joys of study as a Jew is that we value an innovative interpretation such as Mr. Eliach has made. He makes a good rabbinical argument, looking at an anomaly in the tradition and then bird-dogging it through the texts to uncover a new understanding. That new understanding doesn’t necessarily supercede the old one, it just adds to it. The fact that in this case it produces a moral of the tale 180° from the more familiar moral just makes it more interesting. It’s also quite appropriate to Purim, the holiday when everything is hafuch (upside-down.)

The Torah and the Tanakh are given to us, to the Jewish People. We wrestle with them, and in every generation, some among us find new and wonderful ideas in there. We use both traditional tools and modern tools: Eliach makes his radical reading of Esther with the most traditional tools imaginable, the words of a 4th century rabbi. Another reader may dig at the text with a modern tool like structural criticism and find something wonderful, perhaps with a more traditional feel to it – Jewish text study is not without its ironies!

The point is, these texts are ours: Our to learn, ours to cherish, ours to poke and prod for new insight. Enjoy!

 

 

Don’t Forget this Purim Mitzvah!

will_work_for_food3gPurim’s coming! Don’t forget: one of the four main mitzvot of Purim is a gift to feed the poor.

In its strictest interpretation, that’s a gift to make sure that poor Jews can celebrate the holiday. You can fulfill that mitzvah, feeding Jews, by a couple of routes:

MAZON is a Jewish organization that feeds people in both North America and in Israel. They do not turn anyone away, but they are primarily focused on Jewish food insecurity.

Alternatively, you can give money to your rabbi’s discretionary fund. Every congregation has members who are living with food insecurity, usually silently. The rabbi sometimes becomes aware of these situations and the discretionary fund can help buy groceries. A rabbi’s discretionary fund is not a private slush fund for expenses. Those funds have to be spent on things that preserve the deductible status of the original gift (in the USA.)

However, we are taught by our tradition to feed ALL hungry people, not just Jews. Some other options:

  • Donate cash or goods to your local food pantry or food bank.
  • Persuade others to give to your local food bank.

This is different from the usual “tzedakah before a holiday” thing, although that’s certainly good on its own. This is a particular part of Purim observance.  Partly this makes sure all can celebrate the holiday, but also look at the calendar: this holiday comes at what can be a brutal time of year for people with food insecurity. It’s cold and wet in many locations, and has been for months. Nutrition affects people’s resistance to colds and flu. Many kinds of produce are more expensive because of the season, too.

The Hebrew name for these Purim gifts is Matanot L’Evyonim (mah-ta-NOTE l’ev-yon-EEM): Gifts to the Poor. Purim is actually the traditional Jewish gift-giving holiday: we give gifts to the poor, and food gifts to friends.

The root of tzedakah (charity) is tzedek, justice. It is unfair that so many are hungry. In my own home state of California, 15% of households – that’s over 2 million people! – are currently suffering with food insecurity. There are parents going hungry to feed their children and children going hungry because there isn’t enough to go around. This is a shanda (scandal.)

Before we put on our festive masks, let’s each choose a place to send what we can!