“Purim should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and these days of Purim should never fail to be celebrated by the Jews—nor should the memory of these days die out among their descendants” (Esther 9:28).
God’s name appears nowhere in Megillat Esther. By itself, this feature of Megillat Esther provides grist for the mill of rabbinic commentary, as our rabbis remain fascinated by what it means to say that one of the defining moments in the Jewish people’s story was not the result of God’s intervention, but through the acts of Esther and Mordecai, two mortals without the powers of prophecy. As a result, Megillat Esther’s presence in the Hebrew Bible makes a powerful statement about the ways in which human beings play a role in furthering God’s mission.
However, Maimonides adds an extraordinary level of significance to Megillat Esther in the Mishneh Torah, asserting that the story must continue to be read even in the messianic era, when any number of other sacred texts will no longer need to be read, citing the above verse as his prooftext. Maimonides states:
“All Prophetic Books and Sacred Writings will cease [to be recited in public] during the messianic era except the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist just like the Five Books of the Torah and the laws of the Oral Torah that will never cease. Although ancient troubles will be remembered no longer, as it is written (Isaiah 65:16): “The troubles of the past are forgotten and hidden from my eyes,” the days of Purim will never be abolished, as it is written (Esther 9:28): “These days of Purim should never fail to be celebrated by the Jews—nor should the memory of these days die out among their descendants” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Purim 2:18).
Maimonides argues that Megillat Esther possesses eternal significance, and that significance must continue to be understood and recounted in every generation, even when humanity reaches the apex of divine achievement. At the same time, Avivah Zornberg argues in The Murmuring Deep that Maimonides’ statement “articulates the paradoxical stature of Esther in Purim,” for the “only text where God’s face is hidden…is selected for eternity” (116).
Zornberg provides a variety of explanations as to why Esther is “selected for eternity” in spite of the absence of God’s name, yet I would like to add one more reason critical to consider in a secular age. In messianic times, it makes sense for the Jewish people to continue to read the Torah and study the Oral Torah, as these texts are central to our understanding of God’s revelation to the Jewish people, and a reminder about the charges that God gave to Abraham, Moses and our descendants that started the Jewish people down the long road to eternal redemption.
However, if the Jewish people only read the Jewish texts where God was the primary savior, then future generations might be taught that the only way to achieve holy purpose is through God’s intervention, and that people are incapable of doing that on their own. Yet reading Megillat Esther even in messianic times sends the message that we add an essential layer of meaning to God’s purpose, and that in a critical moment Esther and Mordecai decided, on their own, to stand up for the Jewish people and recognize, as Mordecai implored Esther, that she was chosen “to royal position for just such a crisis” (Esther 4:14). By ensuring that Megillat Esther is always read, we are compelled to remember that God’s story is incomplete without our contribution.
In challenging times for the Jewish Community, synagogue leaders want answers, yet sometimes I wonder if synagogue leaders really need pre-packaged plans, but rather the confidence to march along uncertain terrain while knowing that there will be people and institutions to support them if and when they take a leap of faith and fall down. J. Richard Hackman writes that no team can thrive when their mission can only be achieved with a fully baked plan with no room for individual contributions. He writes:
“Sometimes the problem with a team’s direction is not that it is too ambiguous but that it is over-specified. When a team’s purpose is spelled out in exhaustive detail, there is little room for members to add their own shades of meaning and thereby make the purpose their own. Sense-making is an essential part of coming to “own” a piece of work, and an overly explicit statement of direction can preempt the process…Good direction for a work team is clear, it is palpable–but it is also incomplete” (Collaborative Intelligence, 70).
In Megillat Esther, Esther and Mordecai are not given a roadmap to redemption, yet they found it on their own through standing up to injustice while honoring the values of celebration, charity, and remembrance. Today, our Jewish institutions face structural and existential challenges, and it is tempting to hope for divine intervention, yet in times of great challenge our tradition implores us not to “rely on a miracle” (BT Pesahim 64b), but push ourselves to add a layer of meaning to God’s mission and march through uncertain terrain together.
While it is challenging to address our problems without a clear roadmap, it is how people respond in moments of crisis that show whether or not we understand our purpose, achieving Judaism’s core mission of building a better, holier world. And if we internalize and actualize that purpose, then, slowly but surely, things will get better.
Hag Purim Sameah.