June 17, 2019

Purim: There’s something about Esther

If I were assigned the task of writing a biblical-style script for a play or a movie, the Book of Esther is the last place I would turn for inspiration. The word “biblical” conjures up images of God, prophets, dreams, visions and supernatural miracles — all of which are strikingly absent from the Book of Esther. Not once does God’s name appear in this book, and none of the main characters are prophets or religious leaders. As for the outcome that came to be known as the “Miracle of Purim,” it is told in absolutely human terms, with no divine manifestation or supernatural miracles determining the outcome.

Contrast this with the Torah, the ultimate source of inspiration for a biblical-style story. All the classic biblical ingredients are present in the Torah. God is ever-present, regularly communicating with prophets in dreams, burning bushes and pillars of fire. When it comes to supernatural miracles, no book does it better than the Torah. God’s creation of the world, splitting of the sea and speaking the Ten Commandments directly to the Israelites at Mount Sinai are among the most outstanding divine manifestations in all of human history.

Yet, for the polar opposites that they are, the Torah and the Book of Esther share something very deep. They are the only two books in the Bible that, according to halachah, must be written on a parchment scroll by a scribe and must be read from such scrolls during public readings in the synagogue. By contrast, the prophetic selections read in synagogue as haftarot may be read from a printed book. Despite the absence of God’s name or of supernatural miracles, the Book of Esther became the “Torah Scroll of Purim.”

The Torah and the Book of Esther meet up in the Talmud. Tractate Megillah teaches us the laws of how to properly write Megillat Esther (megillah means scroll), as well as the appropriate times for its public reading on Purim. During the discussions about the Scroll of Esther, Tractate Megillah branches out to discuss the laws pertaining to the public reading of the other scroll in Judaism — the Torah. In a fascinating transition from the scroll without God’s name to the scroll in which God is everywhere, Tractate Megillah creates a unique halachic bond between the Scroll of Esther and a Torah scroll. 

The drama of the unique relationship between these opposites intensifies.

In his final halachic entry on the Laws of Purim, Maimonides teaches:

In the Messianic era, all of the biblical books of the Prophets and Writings will be nullified, with the exception of the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist, as will the Torah and the Oral Law, which will never be nullified (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Megillah, 2:18).

What does this seemingly peculiar relationship between the Torah and Megillat Esther imply? What is it about Megillat Esther that sparked the masters of Jewish tradition to have it written and read like a Torah scroll, and then to declare that it shares a unique destiny with the Torah as one of Judaism’s two eternally everlasting books? 

Jewish tradition places Megillat Esther on a pedestal, on par with the Torah, to teach us that experiencing God’s miracles does not lie exclusively in the realm of the supernatural. The so-called “classic biblical ingredients” — prophecies, miracles and even the constant mention of God’s name — are not the only ways to experience God. The rabbis sanctified Megillat Esther as a hidden manifestation of the divine, inspiring us to have faith that God is ever present in the world, even when that doesn’t seem so obvious. 

By seeing Megillat Esther as the “Torah Scroll of Purim,” the rabbis actually raise the bar in deepening our understanding of God and miracles. It’s easy to believe in God when you witness supernatural miracles or hear God’s voice speaking to you from heaven. But when Esther somehow becomes the chosen queen, and the very enemy that sought to destroy the Jews ends up destroyed — all without the sea splitting — can we rise above our secular “all’s well that ends well” reading of Esther and read this story as a miracle? 

Ever since the close of the prophetic period (roughly 2,700 years ago), the only God we have known is the one “presented” in Megillat Esther. God no longer speaks to us from mountaintops, and we do not have prophets with whom God interacts. From the story of Mordecai and Esther all the way to our current experiences as a Jewish nation, the hidden God of Megillat Esther — for better or for worse — is the only expression of God that we have known. 

The Torah and Megillat Esther indeed share much in common. The parchment, the calligraphy and the eternity of their distinct spiritual messages bond these texts forever. But more than the Torah, it is Megillat Esther — today and all the way through the Messianic Age — that truly challenges us to find God, both in our personal lives and in our national existence as Jews.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC), an international educational and cultural organization with its own campus in the Old City of Jerusalem. He is developing the SEC into the first Sephardic think tank for the Jewish world. Follow his blogs at rabbidanielbouskila.blogspot.com or at jewishjournal.com.