Esther & The Double Masking

Everybody loves Purim! It’s a lot of fun, with parties, gifts and costumes. But it’s also a mystery. There are so many questions about Queen Esther and her book. What’s her relationship with Mordechai? What’s her real name? When did the story take place? And why do we have a book in our Bible that doesn’t mention God? Perhaps many of us get drunk to avoid thinking about these and other issues. 

This ’conundrum wrapped in an enigma’ aspect of Purim is first discussed in the Talmud: They asked Rav Mattana: From where in the Torah can one find an allusion to the events involving Esther? He replied to them that the verse states: And I will surely hide [HASTER ASTER, sounds similar to Esther, even though the name probably isn’t Hebrew] My face from them on that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned to other gods (Deuteronomy 31:18, Chulin 139b). 

This double aspect of distance from God is also apparent in the words of Esther to Mordechai, as she finally accepts her mission to King Achashverosh, her husband. She says, ‘Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast on my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish (K’ASHER AVADITI AVADITI, Esther 4:16)!’ That’s a pretty negative way of saying ‘yes’. 

Actually, the Midrash gets in on the double-blind idea as well. According to Esther Raba when she goes into the throne room, she is reciting the verse, O my God, my God, why have You forsaken me? (Tehillim 22:2). According to the Vilna Gaon, this verse comes from the Psalm of the day for Purim. 

I believe that part of the reason for the unusual level of frivolity and joy on Purim is based on the depths of despair, the Jews of Persian Empire experienced before the great salvation. This aspect of a double dose of God’s hiddenness does permeate the first half of the Megila. How can we describe or categorize this double whammy? 

The Slonimer Rebbe in one of his Netivot Shalom essays for Purim deals with this issue. The first aspect of this sense of distance from God emanated from the Jews themselves. At some point, the Jews of Persia started feeling that God wasn’t around. Perhaps, this began at the banquet when the Jews celebrated, just like everyone else. The Midrash hints that the Jews felt no attachment to their heritage even when vessels from the holy Temple were used at the party (Esther 1:7). 

We may also see it in the Jews’ names. Esther had a Hebrew name, Hadassah, but she was known by a Persian name, which derived from a heathen God, Ishtahar. Even Mordechai’s name probably was from the Persian god Marduch. Sort of like calling Jewish kids, Chris or Christine. 

The Midrash warns that whenever the Jews ask if God is in our midst, immediately Amalek appears to remind us. The Jews of Shushan and, perhaps, much of the vast Persian Empire, were beginning to forget their special status as God’s nation in this world. At this point in Jewish history, very few Jews lived in Eretz Yisrael, and we don’t know how exile was affecting our ancestors.   

So, now we know the double whammy. First, the Jews themselves felt distant from God and began asking, ‘Where is God?’ Then, secondly, we were threatened by Haman, a direct descendant of the Jews’ nemesis, Amalek. A spiritual malaise prompted a dire physical threat. The scene was set for either disaster or delivery. 

Redemption came from the bravery and rededication to Jews and Judaism of Esther. She of the double hiddenness became the spark which resulted in ‘great light and gladness, happiness and honor’ (Esther 8:16). Then the great switcheroo (NAHAFOCHU) took place. Haman went from ‘happy and light hearted’ (5:9) to swinging in the breeze, and we were ‘transformed from grief and mourning to festive joy’ (9:22) which ‘shall never cease among the Jews, and the memory of them will never perish among their descendants’ (9:28). Hurray and huzzah!! 

Rav Yoel bin Nun adds an interesting addendum to all this. He was concerned about the issue of the very existence of a book of our Tanach without the mention of God. His answer is quite cool. He postulates that our Sages of the Great Assembly actually included the Megila for the very reason that it doesn’t have God’s name. This tale ‘comes to teach us that God is found secretly even in those places where God cannot be named’. He concludes: It was deliberately written in such a radically secular style to teach us that Divine providence exists in places and situations far from the realm of holiness, and that God’s hand directs the world even in places where God appears to be hidden.  

Hence the great joy! God is ever vigilant. We are eternally under the Divine gaze, even when, tragically, we aren’t paying attention. Now that’s an idea to remember and a reason to celebrate! Happy Purim!!  

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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