Where is God in the Purim story?

Posted Thu, 03/14/2019 - 14:05 by MCS

It has always been puzzling that God is not mentioned once in the book of Esther – and yet it is still a fully-fledged Biblical book! Jewish tradition has a couple of different ways of resolving this issue.

The first is to make a pun on Esther’s name. The word Ester contains the letters s-t-r, which is the root of the word ‘to hide oneself’. The rabbis of the Talmud play around with this idea, and turn Esther’s name into Hester Panim – ‘the hidden face’ of God – from a verse in Deuteronomy (31.18), in which God says: ‘I will surely hide my face’. According to this interpretation, God is present in the Purim story, but hidden. So God plays a part in saving the Jews, it’s just that we cannot see God’s workings. This could reinforce for us a sense that, although we might not perceive it, God continues to play a part in our lives in the here and now.

A different interpretation is offered by another part of the Talmud. The section begins by referring to the Israelites being stationed at the foot of Mount Sinai. We always translate it as being ‘at the foot’ of the mountain, but actually the Hebrew says tahat, meaning ‘under’. This leads one rabbi to a startling claim:

Rav Avdimi son of Chama, son of Chasa, said: ‘This teaches that the Holy Blessed One held the mountain over them like a pail, and said to them: “If you accept the Torah – good. If not, this will be your grave.”’

This claim causes consternation among the rabbis: How could Rav Avdimi make such a claim? Surely, if the Torah was accepted under duress, it’s not worth the parchment it was written on! But another sage, Rabbah, has an answer to this:

Rabba said: ‘Even if it were so, the generation of Ahashverosh accepted [the Torah]. As it is written: ‘The Jews ordained and accepted [upon themselves]’ (Esther 9.27) that which they had already accepted [under duress].’

So, people in the time of Ahashverosh, Haman (booo!), and Esther (yaay!) chose to accept the burden of Torah despite the fact that God was absent – despite the fact that there was no mountain being held over their heads. This is, perhaps, the message of Purim: that we might keep faith with our tradition despite the fact that we may no longer feel God’s presence immediately in our lives. There was value to the Jews of Persia in continuing to identify as different, to hold onto their tradition, and to their faith.

Elliott Karstadt, Student Rabbi