THE UPSIDE-DOWN MEGILLA
From an article by Rav Yoel Bin-Nun in Hadassah Hi Esther, published by Yeshivat Har Etzion.
I. GOD AND THE JEWS - WHERE ARE THEY?
The inclusion of Megillat Esther in the canon elicits, at first glance, a certain degree of surprise. It appears to be nothing more than a secular work, the complete opposite of all other books of Tanach. The Megilla very deliberately avoids any and all references to anything that is in any way deemed to be holy, sometimes being blatantly obvious in its avoidance.
The name of Hashem is not mentioned at all in the Megilla. This is most obvious in 4:14 when Mordechai says to Esther that if she does not go to Achashveirosh to plead for the Jews, then "Salvation and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place..." There can be no doubt that this "other place" is a reference to Hashem, and yet the Megilla refuses to make specific mention of the Divine. Similarly, when Esther proclaims a fast, there is no mention made of any form of prayer that would accompany the fast, or any line noting that the fast fell out on Pesach.
The Megilla also lacks any allusion to the classic ideas of reward and punishment. The reader is not informed what the Jews have done to deserve the decree against them. There is no reference to any form of providence, but rather the events in the story are pushed forward by chance in the form of Haman's lottery.
Even the manner in which the salvation comes about is problematic from a Jewish literary point of view. Esther comes to power via a process that essentially reduced her, a Jewish girl, to being a common prostitute in the King's court. The Megilla even goes so far to specifically detail the amount of time that the girls spent bathing in oils and other scents in anticipation of their "meeting" with the King.
We must also note the fact that there are several events and actions that occur in the Megilla without any form of explanation. We are never told why Mordechai does not bow down to Haman. Certainly, bowing down before another individual is not uncommon in scripture, and certainly before a King or some similarly high officer. While Chazal offer explanations for his actions, the fact remains that the Megilla does not inform us as to why Mordechai refused. Additionally, we are not told why Haman wanted to wipe out all of the Jews for any reason other than that "he had been told the nation of Mordechai." The classic anti-Semitic complaint that the Jews were monotheists in a polytheistic, pagan society is not spelled out any more than "their customs are different than those of all other nations" (3:8). And, finally, even in victory, there is no higher reason given why the Jews will win, only Zeresh's description of them as some unstoppable juggernaut - "If Mordechai is of the Jewish people...you will surely fall before him." (6:13)
II. HISTORY IN HIDING
Also omitted from the Megilla are any mentions of the historical context in which it is set. Most notably is the absence of any reference to Israel and Jerusalem, other than a passing note that Mordechai had been exiled from Jerusalem.
More significant in its absence is the Persian history that surrounded these events. Save for a singular detail at the end of the Megilla, Achashveirosh is described as a boorish and foolish character, concerned more with parties and women than with affairs of state. In reality, Achashveirosh, or Xerxes, had risen to power by crushing his opposition. He then hesitated before decided to wage war against Greece, beginning preparations in the third year of his reign. In the sixth year of his reign, he crossed the Dardanelles into Europe, seizing Athens and setting it ablaze. Word of his victory was brought back to the homefront, and the capital of Shushan rejoiced. However, after his defeat at Salamis he set out to return to Asia, and the city was plunged into despair, perhaps seeking a scapegoat for their losses.
The events in the Megilla occur during the third, seventh, and thirteenth years of Achashveirosh's reign, and thus it is very likely that they correspond to the actual historical events described above. However, all that we are told is that he ruled over 127 nations (1:1) and that he ultimately placed a tax on them (10:1). In between these two "bookends" we have a biting satire covering up highly significant historical occurrences.
III. WHAT'S GOING ON?
What is the purpose of the Megilla? Why does it give such a secularized presentation events? Why does it try so hard to avoid have any appearance of holiness contained within it?
All of the books in Tanach must be seen as being not histories of human events, but rather as being a history of revelation, and in particular of revelation to the Jews. As a result, long periods of time are often skipped without mention (e.g. the middle thirty-eight years in the desert, the majority of the enslavement in Egypt).
By contrast, the Book of Esther does not speak of revelation at all. Rather, it describes an upside-down kingdom, a world completely and diametrically opposed to that which we have come to be accustomed to throughout Tanach.
The upside-down world is described in graphically base, materialistic, hedonistic, and pagan terms. Even the Jews seem to be caught up in it, attending the parties given by the King. Even regarding Mordechai and Esther, they are presented to us with names taken from Persian deities (Marduk and Ishtar), rather than the Jewish names that they undoubtedly had (we are told that Esther's real name was Hadassah) and likely used to refer to each other.
As noted, there is no mention of providence anywhere in Megillat Esther, and it is replaced instead with fate and lotteries. The two most significant events in the book - the gallows and the date for the killing of the Jews - are tied up with this idea of lots. Beyond that, the Megilla never claims that the lottery was incorrect. Based on our knowledge of ancient magic and astrology, we can suggest that Haman consulted astrologers and soothsayers, who considered the birthdates of both Haman and Mordechai in consulting the higher powers. In the end, everything was correct except for the fact that it was Haman, and not Mordechai, who met his doom on the chosen day.
IV. WHO'S IN CHARGE?
It appears that the purpose of the Book of Esther is to answer the question of who rules in this upside-down society. If we possessed a Tanach that lacked Megillat Esther, we would have no problem identifying the presence of Hashem in our daily world. Megillat Esther comes to fill in a gap - to teach us that Hashem's reign extends even to those places where it cannot be seen to have any place.
To fully understand this, we must understand religion in Persia during the time of the story. Zoroastrianism dealt with the problem of how evil can exist if God is wholly good by dividing the world into two realms - one of good and one of evil. Megillat Esther comes to counteract this notion. It asserts that Hashem is both "the fashioner of light" as well as "the creator of darkness." Hashem can rule the world even from behind myriad veils and curtains. The gemara (Chullin 139b) asks: Where is the reference to Esther in the Torah? From "v'anochi hasteir astir panai ba-yom ha-hu" - I will surely hide my face on that day. Esther comes to show us how Hashem can exercise His control even when He does not appear to be doing so on any level.
A final proof for this idea can be brought from the description of the palace of Achashveirosh and its obvious parallels to the Beit HaMikdash. The Beit HaMikdash possessed a Holy of Holies that only the Kohein Gadol could enter and only one day a year. Anyone else daring to enter at any other time would be killed instantly. In the "Bizzaro World" of Achashveirosh, the same rules apply. Anyone who inters his "inner chamber" without being called for is sentenced to death.
In this context, Esther assumes the role of the Kohein Gadol, yet in a completely opposite way. While the Kohein Gadol entered the Holy of Holies wearing only simple white garments, Esther entered wearing lavishly adorned royal attire. Further, the Kohein Gadol entered the Holy of Holies twice (the third time was merely to remove the incense) - once to place the incense and one to sprinkle the blood of atonement. Esther also entered twice - once to invite Achashveirosh to a party that only confused matters further, and the second time to pray for her nation.
The Book of Esther completes Tanach. It is written in such a sharp secular style precisely for the purpose of highlighting the ultimate providence of Hashem, that he rules even in the darkest times and the darkest places.
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