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Megillat Esther : Historical Fact or Philosophic Principle

One of the challenges to learning the Tanakh, Hebrew Bible, is that the narrative or events presented in successive texts may in fact span several years. We read the Torah portion of the week or accompanying chapter in the Prophets without reflecting on the fact that time is running. For example, we come across a few facts about Avraham at the end of Parshat Noach. The very next portion opens with God talking to him at the age of 75. What happened to Avraham during those intervening years? When Moshe runs away from Egypt after killing the Egyptian, the next thing we read is, “He settled in Midian.” The Ramban explains there is a 60-year gap in the story. Moshe runs away when he is about 20 and went into hiding. He was a wanted for murder back in Egypt. He didn’t arrive in Midian for about another 60 years. Yet the way the Torah is written, his arrival in Midian seems to follow directly after fleeing Egypt. 

This coming Monday night and Tuesday, we are going to read Megilat Esther, the Scroll of Esther. It is one of the 24 books of the Tanakh. We read this story anywhere between 30 to 45 minutes give or take, depending on the time allowed to drown out the name of Haman. But over how much time did it take for the entire story of the Megilah to play out? Achashverosh, or Xerxes I, became king of Persia in 3392. (for historical perspective the destruction of the first Temple took place in 3338 corresponding to 586 BCE)

The Megillah’s opening scene, the royal party Achashverosh made for the residents of Shushan, was in the 3rd year of his reign, 3395 . It was at this party, while in a drunken stupor, he decides to follow the advice of his advisor, Haman. He has Vashti, his beloved queen executed for refusing to appear at the party. Four years later, 3399 , after an extensive search to replace Vashti, Esther becomes the new queen. Five years into her reign, on the 13th of Nissan, 3404 BCE, Haman casts lots to select the day on which he would have all the Jews killed. Within the next few days, at a second private party hosted by Esther, Haman is exposed for the evil plot he designed against the Jews. He and his sons are immediately hanged. On the 13th of Adar, 3405 , the Jews defended themselves and celebrated the next day, the 14th of Adar 3405. The writing of the Megillah , its acceptance as part of Tanakh, and the permanent establishment of Purim took place in the next year, 3406 , under the direction of the “Men of the Great Assembly.” In total, the story of Purim spans 11 years.

This sequence of historical facts begs the question, wherein lies the miracle of Purim? It all seems like a typical story in the life of royals complete with palace intrigue, deception, murderer all ending happily ever after. Yet, the Megillah is read to express our praise and thanks to God for His salvation of the Jews much as Hallel is recited on Chanukah. But at least on Chanukah there is an actual visual miracle we can point to, the small jar of oil that lasted 8 days. On Purim all we have is a story! But don’t underestimate its contents. The account is no less miraculous. How?

To explain let me share an idea proposed by the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Next week’s Torah portion, Moshe asks God, “Show me Your glory.” (Shemot 33:18) In response to Moshe’s request God says, “You will not be able to see My face, for man shall not see Me and live…And it shall be when My glory passes by, I shall place you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I pass by. Then I shall remove My hand and you will see My back, but My face shall not be seen.” (33: 20-23) What we learn from this response is that God’s involvement (His divine presence) on earth is not always discernable while the individual events are occurring. Our understanding is obscured. But years later, when God has already “passed by” so to speak, we can reflect on the events, interpret their meaning, and see God’s active participation. Of course, if a person does not know the underling objective, in this case the continued existence of the Jewish people, he or she will never see how God’s presence made a miraculous outcome possible. 

During the exile to Persia, following the destruction of the first Temple, the continued existence of our Jewish people was in serios jeopardy. Not unlike today, there was tremendous pressure to assimilate. While this threat to our existence emerged slowly over time, it was no less catastrophic in nature. So too was the case with our salvation, slow and plodding, not instantaneous, not with spectacular signs and wonders. Rather, this miracle emerged from the plan of a brilliant woman, Esther, thrust into the pending calamity not by her choice or by her making, all the while assisted by God behind the scenes.

 The Megillah begins with a party thrown by Achashverosh. Here we can see how l the seeds for both our possible destruction and our later salvation were laid. The Megillah then presents so many seemingly disparate and unrelated events: a four year beauty contest to find a new queen; Esther, who did everything not to be chosen, ascends to be queen; Mordecai tells Esther not to reveal she is a Jew; Mordecai just happens to uncover a plot to overthrow the king; Mordecai goes unrecognized and unrewarded for his loyalty to the king; a diabolical plan is set in motion to kill all the Jews; Esther, under extreme pressure and duress, devises a plan that may or may not save the Jews; the king can’t sleep one night and discovers he never rewarded Mordecai; just at that moment, in the middle of the night, Haman comes calling on the king to hang Mordecai. 

In retrospect we can analyze, from beginning to end, the sequence of the historical record depicted in the Megillah. Out of this analysis emerges a true but fantastic testimony to the underlying philosophic principle of Judaism found in the Torah. This account is no less breathtaking to the one who sees it (understands it) than any of the open signs and wonders witnessed by the generation that left Egypt. The historical record makes clear the fact of God’s presence, His constant involvement, with the continued existence of the Jewish people. The very first Rashi in Bereisheit establishes this philosophic principle. The creation and continued existence of the Jewish people is the underlying theme of the entire Chumash.

Megillat Esther is referred to by our great rabbis of the Talmud as both a ספר “a book” and אגרת “a letter.” It is a “book” because of the many themes (parshiot) all related to one underlying, unifying concept. God’s presence is always standing guard over the Jewish people. It is called a “letter” because a letter is a timely communication. It’s contents and message for us, today as well, is current.

Let us spend time over this weekend studying more deeply, investigating some aspect of Megillat Esther. Our praise and thankfulness to God, for which this celebration of Purim was created, will only be enhanced by that pursuit.

Shabbat Shalom and Buen Purim, Purim Sameach, Freilachen Purim, Chag Purim, Happy Purim,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan