Director of Jewish Life and Learning
The story of Purim has all the components of a great fairy tale or Disney movie – a silly king and an evil villain, the beautiful Queen heroine and the wise old man. The kingdom’s wealth and the months-long parties exceed opulence and extravagance to the point of absurd and comical. And, of course, the beautiful heroine, with guidance from the wise man, saves the day.
What distinguishes the story of Esther and the holiday of Purim, however, from other biblically-linked stories and holidays in our calendar – is the absence of a direct reference to God. In fact, the Book of Esther is the only book in the biblical canon in which the name of God is not mentioned at all.
When Mordecai hears of Haman’s plot to kill the Jews, he tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth and ashes, and goes through the city crying loudly and bitterly. While his actions suggest a ritual form of mourning, the text does not tell us that he cried out specifically to God for salvation.
Mordecai sends a message to Esther in the palace that she must inform the king of Haman’s intentions and plead for the Jewish people, and Esther’s initial response is one of reticence. She is only permitted before the king when he calls for her, or she risks execution.
Mordecai’s reply is my favourite part of the Megillah, and for me, the most applicable message to us as a community and to us as individuals, in every generation, from the time of Esther and Mordecai to now.
Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, if perhaps you have attained this royal position for just such a time.
Again, the author of the Megillah could easily have inserted the name of God into Mordecai’s words. As a biblical book, we would expect Mordecai to tell Esther that God will ultimately save the Jewish people, with or without her help.
As the Jewish community moved farther away from biblical times – geographically and spiritually – the story of Esther demonstrated that an overt presence of God was not necessary for the people to discern a divine presence in and a divine purpose to their lives.
Instead, the focus of the story remains on the individual’s responsibility to act, with the caveat that, as individuals, we may not always understand how the universe works and why we find ourselves in the situations that we do. Nonetheless, we must accept the challenges that come our way because our actions, our struggles, and our responses may contribute one tiny role in a much larger production.
The fast of Esther ends tonight at 7:41 PM, and services and Megillah reading are about 7:00 PM, (check your synagogue calendar). We are obligated, on the holiday of Purim, to hear the Megillah read from a scroll, to give money to the poor and gifts of food, and to celebrate with a Purim feast.
Welcome the opportunity to participate in these mitzvoth – one never knows what benefits they will bear – for you, for your children, or in some completely unexpected way.
Deborah, Director of Jewish Life and Learning, has an MA and PhD in the history of Jewish Bible Interpretation from McGill University as well as a Masters in Library and Information Science (MLIS) also from McGill.