The New York Times ran aneditorial by Francis X Clines about “dystopian classics” that “are being consulted as a literary trove for plumbing the national Id.” While I did read Philip K. Dick’sThe Man in the High Castleand Philip Roth’sThe Plot Against Americaduring the Republican Convention instead of watching it, and I definitely plan to read Sinclair Lewis’It Can’t Happen Hereand Richard Condon’sThe Manchurian Candidate, and reread1984and Brave New World, I want to suggest one that might be best reading for the Jews.
The only book of the Bible not to ever mention the name of God, the Book of Esther is the historically latest book to be included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible. People have been divided for ages how toread it. Is the book a satire? A mockery of political language and an incompetently run palace? Wishful thinking that Jews might possibly defeat an advisor who wishes to do them evil? Wish fulfillment about the fate of the Jews in a world where they are in exile without political power?
I would like to suggest that much of the strategy and wisdom needed to foment resistance in America under Trump can be found in this odd book. It’s message ultimately? Though appeal is made obliquely to a higher power it is decisive human action that saves the day. In asking Esther to act, Mordechai tells her that if she keeps silent at this time, salvation will come from elsewhere(Esther4:14) which has been interpreted by classical Jewish sources as from God. But,whether because of this threat or not, Esther does act, does not assume that she, in the King’s palace will be spared the fate of the other Jews(Esther4:13).
What does Esther do? Esther says she will fast for 3 days and asks the rest of the Jews to do likewise. Then, after the 3 day fast she will try her luck with the king and “if I perish, I perish”( Esther4:16). Once she goes to him, she invites him first to one banquet and then to a second; intervening between the two banquets is a sleepless night for the king. To help his insomnia, he asks for his record book, literally his “book of memories, the words of the days” to be brought to him(Esther 6:1). It is found in writing that Mordechai had informed him of the plot by the two courtiers to kill him and that no consequent honor or dignity had been conferred on Mordechai. It is this written “memory” that causes the king to have an understanding that he must reward the loyalty of this trustworthy subject. This re-inscribing and then re-enacting of the events of the past, made possible through the vehicle of writing, turns the plot of this potentially tragic story decisively on its head. At the second banquet, Esther fingers Haman as the one behind the plot to exterminate her and her people and the king immediately declares that Haman must hang.
The eradication of the man who wished to kill the Jews is not enough to finish the job. Instead, letters must be written, not to countermand the king’s orders, since a royal decree once promulgated cannot be undone. Language itself is the weapon to combat the word of the king. Esther and Mordechai are nowin a position to write letters of their own.
There is something in the act of writing that is itself powerful. Recall that Mordechai’s report of the plot on the king’s life was recorded in writing, and that because his deeds were recorded, they were able to have an effect beyond the limited memories of the time at which they were done. When something is written it can have a potency and effectiveness that extends beyond when it happens. What do Esther and Mordechai do to consolidate their power? They write letters once(Esther 9: 20) and then a second time(Esther 9: 29). Writing puts ideas out in the world, disseminates them with effectiveness.
Writing does have power, allowing one to put into concrete form what has here-to-fore existed only in one’s head. I often wonder whether writing can have an effect on the world, what its purpose is, but at the same time, know that it can change things. Writing about something, expressing feelings and sharing them with others can catalyze others to action and to think in new ways, to have empathy or yearning for something new. The fascinating thing about the book of Esther and what makes it seem so modern and applicable to the world today is that humans have to use the tools at their disposal, including writing, to get their message out.
In fact, in the last few verses of Esther, it is twice mentioned in 9: 32 and in 10: 2 that these events were written in a book. Now, Jews have a book, a “sefer divrei hayamim” a book of the matters of the day, just like the Persians did at the beginning of the book(Esther2:23), and as the last two books of the Bible, Divrei Hayamim, usually translated asChroniclesin English, are called. Perhaps the scroll of Esther is really about the process of writing a book of history, which requires both words and deeds to be complete. So much of the plot of megillat Esther depends on the written word taking effect, having a force in the world – once a decree is issued it can’t be annulled. Mordechai’s recognition of Bigtan and Teresh’s plot against the king in chapter two becoming part of the king’s consciousness because it is written and then read, Jews defending themselves because decrees about this go out.
What Jews in the age of Trump can learn from Esther’s book is a threefold strategy.Listen and be vigilant, at the king’s gate and elsewhere, about what is going on in the precincts of the palace and where power is contained. Be willing to risk everything- lives are at stake if a tyrant is not stopped. Send letters, commit things to writingas an effective means of both protest and of establishing a new order from a baseline of truth.
Mostly though the book of Esther shows that human action and vigilance will save the day. The morning after the election, my husband said to me, “I feel like I am Mordechai in the book of Esther” andexplained that the first thing Mordechai did was to be vigilant, to sit at the king’s gate and see what was going on(Esther 2: 19,21). He added that sitting at the gate and observing, we have a chance to know what is going on and intervene. In his sitting at the gate, Mordechai overheard some terrorists plotting to assassinate the king, told Queen Esther(significantly, here in2:22is the first use of her title) and she informed the king who investigated and thwarted the attempt on his life.
Like Esther and Mordechai, not only do Jews need to use the playbook of the book of Esther to observe, but to write down facts and send letters and act. And believe it or not(see Elliot Horowitz’ bookReckless Ritesfor more on this) the Jews did physically I am not suggesting we need to fight physically yet, but I do think we need to observe all, pay attention to what historian Heather Richardson of Boston University has called a “shock event”meant to destabilize a society and throw it into chaos. We must also galvanize ourselves, even to risking our lives if necessary as Esther did. And continue to write letters that will help our lawmakers know our opinions as they promulgate law.
The positive thing about all this is that Purim is the one holiday that will remain operative in the time of the Messiah, according to tradition. Why? Maimonides inHilkhot Megillah2:18, quotes Esther9:28about the endurance of the holiday in every generation. Even when the Messiah comes, and no action is needed on our part, still Jews should remember this one holiday above all others. I would suggest that humans can value the fact that even without divine intervention, sometimes we are capable of making good decisions, in order to put power in the hands of those who will use it well.
Until then, the words of Philip Roth’sThe Plot Against Americaremain in my mind. “The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.” But I remember that though we can’t see and foresee everything we still can and must act, and can learn from the playbook of histories, fictional histories and enduring histories.
Beth Kissileff is the author of the novel Questioning Return and editor of the anthology Reading Genesis. Visit her on line atwww.bethkissileff.com