Torah Commentary- Purim: Esther- Dawn of a New Age


1. Dawn of a New Age- The Book of Esther
I will admit that I’ve always had a certain hesitation when it came to Purim. It wasn’t that I was so influenced by Bible criticism or historical scholarship, it was my own sense that the Book of Esther, the focus of the holiday of Purim, read more like a novel than a book of prophecy. It is probably for this reason that if you ask many people which came first, Hanukka or Purim, they would say that Purim was later- there is something more modern about Purim and the Megilla than about the Hanukka story. The Hanukka story feels more biblical than does the Esther story for a number of reasons- it takes place in the land of Israel, there’s a Temple with sacrifices and ritual purity, but most of all, there’s a miracle at the core of the story, whereas with Purim, there is no miracle, it takes place in exile, the Jews are a persecuted minority, and a lot of political intrigue is involved. So, despite its being hundreds of years earlier, the Purim story feels more modern, more contemporary. More importantly, the book of Esther, the “megilla”, reads more like a novel than any other sacred Hebrew text, though it is included among the books of the “bible”. I would like to argue now that this novelistic quality, seemingly a detraction from the sanctity of the holiday, may be, in fact, literally, its redeeming quality.
This literary quality of the book of Esther is not a modern discovery; it is already a problematic in the Talmud. Recorded in BT Megila 7., is an argument as to whether the book of Esther is sacred enough to ritually impurify direct contact (the special state of holy books is preserved by necessitating ritual handwashing in any contact) as are other recognized books collected as Torah. Interestingly, it is exactly the novelistic qualities of the work that salvage its sacred status:

We have learned: R. Elazar states that “Esther” was written with the Divine Spirit, as it says “And Haman said in his heart”. Rabbi Akiva says that it was written with the Divine Spirit, as it says “And Esther found favor in all who looked upon her”…Shmuel says, I have the best argument- as the text states “the Jews accepted and took upon themselves”, meaning they kept above what they accepted below (Megila 7.)

All of these proofs of divine inspiration are based upon what is traditionally recognized as a literary technique, the imputation of what someone must have been thinking, what the reaction of characters must have been in a given situation. Rashi explains that the reaction of a critical reader to these passages could be “who says?” in which case either the book is a work of fiction or the information comes from a divine source of inspiration. What is critical to our argument is that one could better argue the sanctity of the text from its message, or the ritual practices described, but instead, the central argument for its sanctity are exactly the loci which a textual scholar would use to disparage the texts divinity and point to its literary evolution.
Of course, the Rabbis in claiming “divine inspiration” and sacred status for the book were not claiming that the book had been delivered by angels or in a revelation, for after all the text itself states, at the end of chapter 9, that it was written by Esther in order to document the event and preserve the celebration inaugurated as a result. The Talmud and Midrashim actually have Esther and the Rabbis of the time debating whether this story should be “preserved” as a text (verses 31-32), while at the same time it is these verses proffered as support that the Megilla itself when used ritually needs to be written almost as though it were a Torah scroll, with certain types of thread necessary and use of sirtut, a way of making lines used in writing Torah scrolls. Aside from the ritual issues, these verses are also used by the Jerusalem Talmud (Megilla 1:5) to argue that the book of Esther has the same homiletical privilege as the Torah itself, being “as truth of Torah” and as such being an appropriate substrate for Midrashic explication! In summary, it would appear that it is exactly the most blatantly “literary” segments of the text that at the same time are chose to defend the texts sacred status both ritually and hermeneutically.
Is this perhaps intentional? Could there be a message in this?
To support this approach, we would need to better define, as it were, the redemptive capacity of literature. For this we will turn to Blanchot. In Blanchot’s L’Espace Litteraire, (citations will be from Ann Smock’s translation “The Space of Literature”), the question to be answered is “what is art, and what can we say of literature?” Blanchot writes:

It seems that art was once the language of the gods; it seems, the gods having disappeared, that art remains the language in which their absence speaks…

Blanchot argues that while the original impetus, the place of “origin” of art, may have been a bringing to presence of a message beyond man, beyond mastery, but eventually that work was “ruinous for the gods”, in that the work itself becomes greater than the gods, the work becomes:

not Zeus any more, but statue… when the gods are overthrown, the temple does not disappear with them, but rather, begins to appear…it reveals itself by continuing to be what it was from the first only unknowingly: the abode of the gods’ absence…

However, despite the human attempt at seeing himself as a creator and master as a result of the recognition of his ability to produce poetry and literature, “the work is no less dangerous for man”:

It soon appears that the work of art is by no means mastered by mastery, that it has less to do with failure than success…In the work man speaks, but the work gives voice in man to what does not speak: to the unnamable, the inhuman, to what is devoid of truth, bereft of justice, without rights…

In this way, Blanchot answers Holderlin’s question: “what use are poets in time of distress?” and sums up his view of the space of literature:

To this question there can be no response. The poem is the answer’s absence. The poet is one, who through his sacrifice, keeps the question open in his work. At every time he lives the time of distress, and his time is always the empty time when what he must live is the double infidelity: that of men, that of gods…That is why the poem is solitude’s poverty. This solitude is a grasp of the future, but a powerless grasp: prophetic isolation which, before time, ever announces the beginning.

Thus, literature is a form of prophecy that comes not from a transcendent source but from deep within human suffering, a hidden prophecy meant to bring about an end to tragedy, to evoke compassion and produce justice and truth from a recognition of its absence, and as such to produce a “‘now’ of dawn”.
We will see that a similar approach is taken to the book of Esther, even down to the analogy with a new dawn. There are multiple Midrashic readings linking the book of Esther with psalm 22, which is begins as a hymn for ayelet hashachar, usually translated as early dawn. In the earlier Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 8:1), the link is that redemption occurs, like the early dawn, in discrete stages, starting slowly and rapidly increasing in illumination, much like in the book of Esther, which starts off dark, then episodically the situation becomes brighter until there is mass jubilation at the end. However, this same reading is handled very differently in the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 29.), which states:

Why is Esther likened to the dawn? Just as the dawn is the end of night, so is Esther the end of miracles…

This is certainly an odd teaching, for while at first glance the metaphor makes sense (end= end), but wouldn’t one expect that the end of prophecy would be more appropriately linked to the end of day? Dawn is usually a positive metaphor, the beginning of a bright, shining, new day, a step forward, whereas one would think of the loss of prophecy as the beginning of a long journey into night and darkness!
R. Tzadok HaCohen notes several midrashim which link the Purim story to the receiving of the Torah at Sinai, the most explicit being in BT Shabbat 88., which states that there was a second (and greater!) acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people at the time of Esther. There is another odd talmudic midrash in Hulin 139: which asks “where is Moses mentioned in the Torah?” and then asks for similar sources hinting at the characters mentioned in the book of Esther, with the proof text for Esther being “I will hide and conceal myself” (v’anochi haster astir) a statement that Gd will seem unreachable and remote during times of distress. This is an odd midrash for several reasons (why Moses should need a prooftext, being mentioned quite frequently in the Torah, and why the answer given is one dealing with the Flood episode is discussed in our essay on Perashat Noach), but to Rav Tzadok Hacohen this midrash reflects the others linking Sinai and Esther (thus Moses is included here and no other biblical personages). What, then, is the connection between Sinai and Esther? These represent two distinct stages in the evolution of Torah, traditionally referred to as the Written Law and the Oral Law. While the Written Law is a reflection of Gd’s will for the world, it is the Oral Law, that is, the written law as interpreted by the ensuing generations, which acts as the vehicle for spirituality to flow through history. Because it is transformative, it is also ultimately redemptive, and this process, given the shorthand title of Oral Law, begins with Esther, who is the first to recognize Gd’s presence in everyday affairs, and as such institutes new rituals and a new holiday, not mentioned in the Pentateuch, which commemorates the miraculous within the historical. It is this book of Esther, which serves as the transition point between Written Law and Oral Law, and this explains the teachng that even if the other holidays are forbidden, Purim will still survive (as per Rashba’s reading of this teaching)- for it is the spirit of redemption which is possible even when it appears that there is no guidance from above that cannot be suppressed.
This is suggested by the Or Hameir, who explains that request at the end of the Megilla to be “written for the generations” means that she is suggesting that her writings will serve as a source for inspiration for future generations, while the Maor V’Shemesh adds that she is suggesting that the text should qualify for the infinite readings possible of all the earlier prophetic works.
I would argue that it is specifically the literary element of the work that makes this possible. The “new dawn” made possible by Esther, is that the encounter with evil, as recognized by the artist, can serve as a catalyst to liberation. Prophecy is no longer necessary, the individual human experience alone is adequate to expose tyranny, evoke a desire for change, call for freedom from repression. Transformations of human consciousness can be achieved with a poem, a song, a novel. It is for this reason that book continues to feel contemporary even after a thousand years, for it is a process within the reach of any one of us who is moved by the confrontation with endless Amalek.
The Book of Esther suggests that there is no better way to end the period of prophecy than with the return of responsibility to the actions of a few good people.
2. until one can not differentiate between good and evil
No image of torture? I want to proceed as Raphael did and never paint another image of torture. There are enough sublime things so that one does not have to look for the sublime where it dwells in sisterly association with cruelty; and my ambition also could never find satisfaction if I became a sublime assistant at torture…. Nietzsche
Purim is an unusual holiday in the Jewish calendar in that as opposed to the solemnity of most holidays, it is one which phenomenologically appears as one of unbridled levity. Children and adults dress in costumes, one is meant to drink until “Blessed be Mordechai” is confused with “Cursed be the evil Haman”, a large meal is held which frequently was accompanied by itinerant comic and satirical theater performances. The message is that events in the world are not as they appear at first glance, even when it appears that all is lost, salvation is just around the corner, or lurking beneath the surface.
The story is told in the Book of Esther- an evil minister of the Persian king, Haman, attempts to get back at another courtier, Mordechai, who Haman feels has ‘dissed’ him. Instead of taking on Mordechai directly, he spends a lot of his own money bribing the king to wipe out Mordechai’s entire people, the people later to be known as the Jews. This decree is accepted by the Persian king, until it is revealed that his beloved Queen is also an MOT (member of the tribe, in Jewish campus slang), and instead the king hangs Haman and his clan, and give Mordechai a good government position. Hence the levity surrounding the holiday, and my presentation of it is in that spirit.
The Rabbis, however, while institutionalizing the rowdy nature of Purim, also recognized the darker aspects of the story. While in this particular instance the outcome was a favorable one, the mere possibility of a situation of mass murder of innocents is a terrifying one.
Thus, for example, the Talmud equates the response of the people to this deliverance to that of the revelation at Sinai – according to the Talmud (BT Shabb. 88.), at Sinai, it appeared as if God held the mountain over the people of Israel and gave them the Torah under compulsion, whereas at the time of Mordechai and Esther, the people re-accepted the Torah, but this time, out of love. One might say that Sinai was a heteronymous acceptance, whereas Purim was an autonomous one. We will return to this midrash later.
To reinforce this darker side of Purim, the holiday is always preceded by a Sabbath Torah reading in which the portion of the Torah dealing with the attack by the Amalekites upon the newly freed slaves, is recounted. We are told that this desert tribe targeted the weakest flank of the Israelite camp, and that this fierce attack was unprovoked; in fact, the text states, the Amalekites essentially stumbled upon the freed Hebrews, and decided to attack them on the spur of the moment. Thus the Amalekites became synonymous with the unlimited capacity for human cruelty, and the command, repeated twice in the Torah, was to remember the attack, and to blot out their memory.
One obvious connection of the Amalek episode to Purim is that Haman is described as an Amalekite in descent, yet there is more to it than that. For example, R. Zadok HaCohen of Lublin points out, Haman’s connection to his progenitors was more than merely one of genes- the name of the holiday, Purim, comes from the lottery, the pur, that Haman cast in order to determine when to kill all those people – a celebration of random violence apparently being a deep seated Amalekite tradition.
It is important to note, that while perhaps in antiquity there were skirmishes with actual Amalekites (such as the one that cost King Saul his throne), in traditional Jewish discourse, way after the term lost any connection to any actual people, the term “Amalek” became a metaphor for all that is bad in the world; in mystical thought the term is a cipher for the evil itself.
Among the Hasidic masters, recognizing the use of singular rather than plural commands in connection with the commands to remember and eradicate Amalek, Amalek came to mean the “evil inclination,” that is, the flawed aspect within each individual that requires transformation and sublation. R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, in his Pri Haaretz, whose reading we will study at length, notes several oddities in the text of the commandment and comes up with a reading that presages that of Freud regarding melancholia and fetishism, as we shall see. The Pri Haaretz notes that a commandment to remember is problematic, since forgetfulness tends to be viewed as an accidental, not an active process. Furthermore, the remembrance is explained as being necessary in ‘erasing the memory of Amalek’. If God had wanted Amalek’s memory to be erased, why mention them at all? Without a textual mention to keep their memory alive, would they not be forgotten like so many other tribes and civilizations that left behind no trace? Aside from the fact that the people Moshe was speaking to in the desert didn’t need to be reminded of this episode, as they had lived through it. So what is this command to remember to forget actually about?
In order to understand his answer in contemporary terms, let us take a brief detour through Giorgio Agamben’s presentation of Freud’s understanding of the concept of melancholy: “In melancholy, the object is neither appropriated nor lost, but both possessed and lost at the same time.”
Agamben quotes Freud, whereby the melancholic ego, unable to let go of the lost object, withdraws from reality, and invests its energy into creating ‘phantasms of desire’, which substitute a superior reality for actual reality. What Agamben realizes, is that the relationship of the ego to these phantasms of desire constitutes the basis of all cultural creation and progress:

No longer a phantasm, and not yet a sign, the unreal object of melancholy introjection opens a space that is neither the hallucinated oneiric scene of the phantasms nor the indifferent world of natural objects. In this intermediate epiphanic state, located in the no-man’s-land between narcissistic self-love and external object-choice, the creations of human culture will be situated one day…

Agamben sees this no-man’s land, this intermediate state of incompleteness and desire, as being the motivating factor behind artistic development, for example, here is Paul Celan:

…I speak, yes, of the poetry that does not exist!

Absolute poetry, – no certainly it does not exist, it cannot exist!

But it does exist, yes, in every existing poem, it exists in every poem without pretense, this question that cannot be evaded, this unheard-of pretense…

At any rate, what is central is the sense of lack, absence, deficiency that can bring about the neurosis of melancholy, or, if redirected and properly channeled, leads to creativity and the realization of a better or more beautiful reality. Perhaps, I would suggest, it is that ‘thing’ that exists between languages, that aspect of the writing that the translator accesses and attempts to recreate in a different language, that place of meaning primary to the actual words finally used, according to Walter Benjamin.
We can now return to the Pri Haaretz. His concern is with the relationship of memory to the task of eradicating evil. To explain this he turns to a Talmudic midrash, from BT Rosh Hashana 21: which states that Moshe achieved 49 of the levels of Consciousness (the 49 shaarei binah), but not the 50th. Why not? Because by definition the 50th level of understanding is – the not understood, that which cannot be comprehended. This highest state, the non-comprehendable, the lacuna which lies beyond knowledge, is that which drives the will to understanding forward and thus paves the way for all future breakthroughs in consciousness.
This memory, if you will, this phantasm, this non-comprehendable which drives us to breakthroughs in consciousness, is also the response to evil in the world, because it is also the place where evil cannot penetrate, he explains, being a pure drive for positive transformation, for self-completion. Concepts at the level of understanding are notoriously subject to critique, parody, and ultimately subversion. Even the most profound mystical knowledge can be mocked (hear the one about the Zen monk who asked the hot dog vendor to make him one with everything?). However, the awe and wonder which drive the imagining of a better, more beautiful existence, remain unattainable.
In a sense, then, the spiritual journey is, ontologically speaking, greater and purer than that which is actually found. The continuing “memory,” the recognition that the world is imperfect, or the self-recognition that I have faults and can always be made better, or to bring it back to the subject of Purim, that there is always still “Amalek” in the world and in our selves, this drive motivates the process of personal and world transformation.
This message underlies the celebration of Purim, according to the Sefat Emet. He reads the adage that “one must drink on Purim until one reaches the state where one knows not between Blessed be Mordechai and Cursed be Haman” as suggesting, not that we are confused, but rather beyond- we achieve a spiritual high, reach that state prior to and beyond the ‘tree of good and bad’, that place where there is no distinction between good and evil- because in that place there was no dualism, no evil, no lack, no corruption, no torture, no suffering. Reaching back for this state in a celebration of the rare victory of the persecuted by malevolent powers, by “redemptive memory” to use Walter Benjamin’s term, we can visualize, even for a drunken moment, world transformation where there is no longer hate or suffering.
With this in mind, we can return to a central theme of Purim, which teaches a few lessons about response to hate speech. Haman pitches his genocide to the king by stating that the Jews are dangerous because they are widely dispersed throughout the kingdom, and thus in some way threatening. Of course, the reason the Jewish community was spread out was because their homeland had been razed by the Assyrians in the recent past, but put in this light, the people’s suffering is made to appear sinister and threatening.
How then, to respond to this kind of hate speech? A model for response is presented by the Kedushat Levi. His message for Purim was built upon the Midrash cited earlier, regarding the re-accepting of the Torah at the time of the deliverance from Haman. Generally, that midrash is read as stating that God, so to speak, forced the Torah upon the people at Sinai, whereas the people re-accepted the Covenant out of love after the fall of Haman. (There is a lovely essay by Levinas in his Talmudic Discourses built upon this reading).
However, the Kedushat Levi, R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditschev, offers an alternative reading. The phrase used there is kafa aleihem har k’gigit, which means that God lifted the mountain over their heads, threatening to turn Sinai into their burial ground if the people reject the Ten Commandments. However, it is a commonplace of midrashic metonymy that the word har, pluralized as harim, can be revocalized as horim, meaning parents or ancestors. In this reading, also found in the Ohev Yisrael, the Israelites recently redeemed from slavery, were reminded of, or lifted up to the level of, their illustrious ancestors, and in that state received the Torah. In other words, they weren’t threatened with violence at Sinai, as in the plain meaning, but instead, were raised up to that higher consciousness which transcends good and evil, and in that state were able to be transformed.
The challenge of history is that revolutionary consciousness is difficult to maintain over the generations, and certainly in difficult and challenging times people lose hope (in fact, the Kedushat Levi points out that immediately after Sinai the people fell from this state and rapidly sinned). Certainly not the victimized suddenly dehumanized population described in the Book of Esther, and yet, their Jewish Renewal was accepted on a par with the original giving of the Torah at Sinai. Because this time, the victory came from the people, not from above, as in Sinai, but from the people themselves, from their innate desire to become better, to transform the world, to transcend depression and melancholy. For this reason, the rabbis explain that this was the last book of the bible text, from this point on, the Oral Law, the set of interpretations that grow from humanity’s lived experience, becomes the guiding principle for life, superior in some ways to that which can be understood from the text without the human element of interpretation.
These then are our contemporary responses to Purim: to stick firmly to our active memory of the reality of the suffering of those against whom hate is directed, a “redemptive memory” of the possibility of a better world, a “phantasm” which guides our dreams to a world beyond hate and suffering, “until we don’t know” of further hate and sorrow.
I’m certain we can all drink to that! Happy Purim!

0 thoughts on “Torah Commentary- Purim: Esther- Dawn of a New Age

  1. Thanks for an intriguing commentary. Could you locate the
    Agamben quote for me? You might also want to consider the late anthropologist Victor Turner on the status reversals achieved in ritual–something very topsy-tuvy about Purim.
    All the best,

    • i share your discomfort, bob, and wish that at the very least, a few lines would be offered in such an article, to at least respond with some feeling to that embarrassment. i find the skimming over this kind of passage deeply disturbing. thanks for reminding us…….

  2. The Agamben quotes are from his book “Stanzas, Word and Phantasm in Western Culture”.
    As far as the other comments regarding apologies for deaths described in largely fictional works, the fictionality of the story being central to the essay, that issue is not at all relevant to the essays here, but I am guessing no one asks for ‘apologies’ from essays on the Iliad.

  3. I’ve always found the book of Esther to be cruel. The slaughter of Haman’s children and the slaughter of the non Jews, is revolting to me. The holiday in Israel brings out hostility and violence against todays Palestinians, and it reenforces the idea that hatred for gentiles is ok. If I was a non Jew in Israel I’d fear for my safety that day in particular.

  4. What and why, the topic of white washing events and stories that don’t make sense is acceptable by normal and rational people when it comes to the Jewish religion and the Talmud? The indication of such deception and violence is very clear in the book of Esther, does not call for any questioning at all in a direct manner? Why is that?!

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