Purim: A Response to the Challenges of Exile

This week’s Dvar Torah was written by Rabbi Fred Klein, the Director of Mishkan Miami, and Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami.

Purim: A Response to the Challenges of Exile

Anti-Semitism from the right and the left. People chanting in the streets. Jews are the objects of partisan power plays by people drunk with power.

“They are undermining the culture and control the cogs of power. They are the sources of all forms of oppression in the world. Jews will not replace us!” The Jews felt they finally ‘made it’ here, and now multitudes are calling them a third rail.

Are the Jews themselves up to these existential challenges which question their very right to be? Unclear. They are fragmented, physically and ideologically, and many have become so assimilated they barely even know they are Jewish, or why that even is important. Will the Jewish people ever rise up, wake up to the reality, and unite?

Indeed, the Jews in ancient Persia must have had it hard.

Haman said to Ahasuerus: “There is [yeshno] one people scattered abroad [mefuzar] and dispersed [meforad] among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; nor do they keep the king’s laws; therefore, it does not profit the king to tolerate them” (Esther 3:8). Rava said: There was none who knew how to slander like Haman, as in his request to the king he included responses to all the reasons Ahasuerus might be reluctant to destroy the Jewish people. He said to Ahasuerus: Let us destroy them. Ahasuerus said to him: I am afraid of their God, lest He do to me as He did to those who stood against them before me. Haman said to him: They have been asleep [yashnu] with respect to the mitzvot, having ceased to observe the mitzvot, and, therefore there is no reason to fear. (B.T. Megillah 13b, Babylonian Midrash Esther)

The past is never really past, but ‘passed’. The same questions of the Purim haunt us today.

One of the more curious aspects of Purim is the fact that we read the megillah twice, not something you might expect.[1] Why? In the Babylonian Talmud Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that one is required to read the Megillah at night and then to repeat it [lishnota] during the day, as it is stated: “O my God, I call by day but You do not answer; and [I call out] at night, but there is no surcease for me” (Psalms 22:3). (B.T. Megillah 4a) The statement is curious.

Why read twice in the first place? Do we have a dearth of texts to choose from? Alternatively, just read it once during the day![2] Secondly, the proof text is rather odd. It begins as a deep cry of desperation of a person who feels that God has utterly deserted him.

What does this desperate Psalm of lament have to do with reading the book of Esther or the celebrations of Purim? Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi did not have a better source?! To answer these questions, one needs to peel behind the layers of frivolity and fun on the day.

The over-the-top nature of Purim masks a deeper anxiety about the exigencies of living in exile, represented by the kingdom of Achashverosh. This is a kingdom utterly devoid of meaning or purpose. In a world like this, it is not hard to see how a person like Haman, drunk with visions of power and domination, can ascend to become prime minister.

In this world, Jews are hardly the makers of their own destiny. For some scholars, the excessive drinking and frivolity, so unlike other ‘holy-days’, was a way for the rabbis to create in regulated time an opportunity for people to release some of these pent-up fears. Purim is certainly a very modern tale of exile, and what that means for the Jewish people.

For our purposes, exile is always compared to the night, a time when things are dark and unclear. The rabbis see in this dark exile not the displacement of the Jewish people from their ancestral land and political power, but a cosmic crisis in which the Divine presence in this world seems to be hidden as well.

Unlike other times, when a God of justice and order is supposed to ‘save the day’, the promise of salvation is actually unexpected, and in fact surprising in the book of Esther. The rabbis tell us that the very word Esther is derived from the Hebrew root s-t-r (hide), and that God’s very name is absent from the Megillah.

The price of exile extends not only to God’s rule and our collective Jewish existence, but also to our inner spiritual life. Again, consider the night. It is a time when people are asleep and not alert.

The Jewish people in the exile of Persia are not only far removed from the Temple in Jerusalem spatially, but spiritually as well. Jerusalem seems like a dream, and while one may dream about Jerusalem, we are prone to quickly forget those dreams in the morning. In the argument to the king quoted above, the anti-Semite Haman argues not only are the Jews a subversive third rail, but they have no real reason to be.

Playing on the word yeshno (there is) that can be read yashnu (they were sleeping), Haman argues that the once mighty Jewish people are not who they once were, as in their slumber they have forgotten what they are about. They have no specific reason to exist.

Part of the anxiety of the night of exile therefore, is not just physical annihilation through genocide, but complete and utter assimilation.

Now to answer the questions: Interestingly, Psalm 22- the text quoted above by Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi- is seen by the rabbis as giving voice to the inner experiences of Esther, captured and vulnerable, isolated and on her own, far from the house of God and her people, and living with Achashverosh.[3]

The Psalm opens with the words, “My God, My God, Why have you abandoned me?” Her very life, a young girl taken against her will and the object of the sexual appetites of another becomes the template of the Jewish people and their experiences. If you read the Psalm in light of Esther, it speaks of one who is in the depths of despair, surrounded by enemies, and cannot find God. She is calling out day and night, and no one seems to hear. However, the Psalm does not end there.

The Psalm then moves to petition God, and finally thanksgiving. The Psalm moves from despair to confidence to thanksgiving. This is very much like the experience of the Jews of Persia- they mourn in despair, they fast and petition a God they still do not see, and they celebrate their ultimate victory.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s proof text for the reading of the Megillah twice is that one needs to ‘call out’ first precisely at night. What kind of prayer- ‘calling out’- is the Megillah? It is a ‘calling out’ of the night, a prayer of exile, a prayer when God seems so far and hidden. We may not even have confidence in the relationship to call God by name.

Before Esther commands the people to come together, fast, and petition, she is tempted with the ultimate temptation- to allow things to be as they will be and allow Haman to win. She initially refuses to argue the Jewish case before the king!

[Like Esther did at first] A person might despair, and exclaim all is lost. During the long night they may succumb to a deep spiritual sleep, and even try to forget all the trauma. It might be better just to jettison the whole thing and just assimilate. [4] Accept the world as it is and look out for yourself. Enough with the grand schemes of salvation for the world, of tikkun olam, or universal justice, or compassion. Just fit in with the power structure around you, and dodge the bullets. Enough with the battling of Hamans in the world.

Indeed, the result of the long exile may not only be physical vulnerability, but spiritual malaise. The rabbis teach us precisely at this moment it is the time to read Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther. Megillat Esther is a statement that even if it seems we have succumbed to sleep, we are awake.

The Megillah serves as a clarion call from the depths of darkness and doubt that hope is around the corner. We remind ourselves that salvation of Purim begins in the middle of the night, when a king could not sleep. We are reminded at that moment that God, the true king, does not sleep either. “See, the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps!” (Psalm 121:4) At that moment we realize that Haman too was wrong. Yes, we may have been scattered, but we are not ‘asleep with the respect to the mitzvot’. The covenant made at Sinai is not broken. God will not forget us and we will not forget God.[5]

Just like the Megillah itself, Psalm 22 moves from despair to salvation and jubilation. Unlike night, the day is characterized by light and discernment, and therefore associated with redemption and salvation. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was not teaching to read the Megillah twice; he was teaching us to repeat the night reading in the daytime. In other words, we remember the long spiritual doubts, struggles, and vulnerabilities of the night. Looking from the other side of history our struggles are not for naught, even if we experienced a God and world that seemed to be silent.

Psalm 22 opens with the title ‘To the chief Musician upon Ayelet-Hashachar‘. The exact meaning of the words is unclear, but allegorically the phrase is translated as the hind (or deer) of the morning, and the rabbis connect this ‘hind of the morning’ again to Esther.[6]

A number of explanations are given: Rav Asi said: Why was Esther likened to the dawn? It is to tell you: Just as the dawn is the conclusion of the entire night, so too, Esther was the conclusion of all miracles performed for the entire Jewish people. (Yoma 29a) The miracles of Esther?! They are hardly like the splitting of a Red Sea. Where is there a miracle?!

But I believe the rabbis are teaching us a profound idea. The point is not that there will be no future miracles after Esther, but the form that miracles take will be like those of the book of Esther moving forward. The future redemption will occur not through another splitting of a Red Sea, but through the hidden miracles like the book of Esther, which at the time probably did not seem do miraculous at all.

They will only be seen as miraculous in hindsight, at the time of the dawn. Reading the story of salvation at night and repeating the story at the dawn teaches us the fact that we need to be resilient and not succumb to despair or slumber.

The world in which the Rabbis, Esther, and we live is very much alike. Things are often dark, unclear, and victories are provisional. But we will prevail as well as our mission. Like the author of Psalm 22 concludes, “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations!”

(Shushan) Purim Sameach!

[1] Historically this probably was not always true. See http://thetorah.com/reading-the-megillah-at-night/

[2] It would been much clearer if Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi taught that the Megillah must be read twice- night and day. The word lishnota is a term that is unclear and can refer to learning Mishna in general. The Talmud actually entertains that rejected reading. For a brilliant excurses on this, see the lecture of R. Meir Goldwicht, “What to Wish for During the Purim Seudah” on www.yutorah.org.

[3] See Rashi Megillah 4a, s.v. ekra. Sephardim read this Psalm on the night of Purim, and Ashkenazim following the custom of the Vilna Gaon, read this on Purim morning. See Eg. Tosafot Megillah 4a, s.v. pesak. For sources see https://www.etzion.org.il/en/shiur-22-psalm-22-my-god-my-god-why-have-you-forsaken-me-complaint-supplication-and-thanksgiving

[4] See the dialogue between Esther and Mordechai in chapter 4, where she initially refuses to approach the king and tries to have Mordechai’s clothing changed from sackcloth.

[5] This notion is directly related to the notion of Purim and is seen as a second acceptance of the Torah, akin to Yom Kippur when the covenant is renewed as well (B.T. Shabbat 88a)

[6] In medieval Hebrew poetry, the ayala (deer) is constantly used as a metaphor for the Jewish people.

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