The Megillah – Hearing And Listening
Purim is a day fraught with Paradox. It is the day when God is most hidden, yet most revealed. Like the Invisible Man, whose contours are only perceived when overlaid in bandages, God cannot be apprehended directly, but only via concealment.
The text that every Jew is obligated to hear, not once but twice each Purim, is the Megillah of Esther. All of God’s familiar names are conspicuously absent from that text. Yet, the book is treated with sanctity. Its public reading is a commandment, performed with a blessing, both on the evening and the morning of Purim.
Questions About Megillah Reading
According to most halakhic authorities, one must hear every word of the Megillah to fulfill the commandment of Hearing the Megillah. According to others, however, one fulfills the commandment if one hears only the beginning and the end of the Megillah. These two views would seem contradictory and one wonders at the logic underpinning each of them.
According to Maimonides, “A foreigner who heard the Megillah written in the Hebrew language and the Hebrew alphabet–even though he doesn’t know what they are saying, fulfills his obligation.”
Why should the written, as opposed to the merely phonetic, script of the Megillah matter to one who only hears it being read? Maimonides’ statement, too, is puzzling.
What is clear, is that Maimonides holds the minutiae of the written Hebrew text are crucial to the Megillah’s message – which must be heard to appreciate the Megillah’s true meaning and message.
A close reading of Esther 10:1, Exodus 1:10, Tehillim 97:1 and 48:12, along with Eicha 1:1, while recalling the shift to Eicha’s cantillation when we publicly read Esther 1:7 will resolve all of these questions, together.
Let’s begin: The Megillah is divided into 10 chapters, the last of which contains only three verses and is an especially anti-climactic epilogue to the story . What purpose does this tiny epilogue serve?
At this point in the Megillah, the Jews have survived an existential, physical threat. By the middle of chapter nine, the Jews have already been saved, through a miraculous battle, preceded by national fasting and prayer. The villain, Haman, and his 10 sons have been neutralized. Evil has been vanquished. Persia’s capital city of Shushan is (again) in celebration mode …
Nonetheless, there is a 10th chapter, and the first verse of this appendix tells us the King Achashverosh imposed a tax (מס), on the land and the islands of the sea. וישם המלך אחשוורוש מס על הארץ ואיי הים
Who cares? Why do we need to know of the tax’s imposition – and that the tax was placed on the Land and the Islands?
To answer this question, we must return to the beginning of the Megillah.
The beginning of Megillat Esther makes clear it is a story about Jews in Diaspora. Situated in Persia, the Jews were meant to have returned to Jerusalem 70 years following the Jewish Temple’s destruction, as foretold/directed by the major prophets Zachariah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah who had predicted the Jews’ Exile from Zion to Babylon. Babylon was later conquered by Persia.
In Megillat Esther’s first chapter we encounter Jews who have forgotten they are in Exile. They have become thoroughly comfortable in the Diaspora and have no recollection of Psalm 137 (“By the Rivers of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered Zion.”) Instead of mourning, the Jews are partying, with a foreign king, completely absorbed into Babylonian/Persian culture, at a banquet/ carnival where they feel completely comfortable – and much more connected to their foreign host than to their own history.
In fact, we are led to understand that the Jews are drinking and eating from once sacred vessels that were once used in the Jewish Temple, before the Jews were driven into Exile. In the middle of seventh verse of Megillat Esther’s first chapter we read, in the distinctive melody of Megillat Eicha, that the liquor is being poured in repurposed vessels…
Megillat Eicha is read on Tisha B’Av, (the 9th of Av) considered the most tragic day in the Jewish calendar and emblematic of all peculiarly Jewish tragedy from the destructions of the Temples through the present day. Tisha B’Av is a day when Jews are called to fast similarly to the way ones fasts on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), refraining from all food and drink – let alone feasting and imbibing wine.
Megillat Esther’s second chapter, introduces us to the story’s first hero, Mordechai, giving us with several key pieces of data that establish his identity. Mordechai is introduced as a Yehudi person (איש יהודי – Ish Yehudi) – one descended from Judah (Yehuda). In short, Mordechai is A Jew. We are told specifically that Mordechai was exiled from Jerusalem, along with the King of Yehuda. And, in the very last verse of the Megillah, as in several other key spots, Mordechai is described as “Mordechai, The Jew.”
In the Megillah’s second chapter, are also provided Mordechai’s essential genealogy. He is linked him to King Saul who lost his kingdom, in large part, because he declined to obliterate Amalek, the Jews’ quintessential arch-enemy. (See: Samuel I 15:8-9, 14, 19-21) Amalek -the entity which first attacked the nascent nation of Israel, unprovoked, as the Jews left Egypt and again when the Jews first entered Israel – is known throughout Jewish lore as the counterforce to Redemption.
A Tiny Word With Deep Import
With the foregoing in mind, let’s return to the first verse in final chapter of Megillat Esther, where we read:
” וישם המלך אחשוורוש מס על הארץ ואיי הים”
“The King Achashverosh imposed a tax (מס), on the land and the islands of the sea.”
The word “מס,” which appears without apparent reason at the very end of Megillat Esther, also appears in the very first verse of Megillat Eicha.
People generally remember the first verse their most poignant narratives – and the first verse of Eicha says this:
“איכה ישבה בדד העיר רבתי עם היתה כאלמנה רבתי במדינות היתה למס”
How is it that the city (of Jerusalem) that was full of people now sits in solitary, become like a widow? She that was once great… has become a vassal!
From ancient times until today the uproot of a nation from its land and the destruction of its cultural center has spelled the doom of a nation, as such. The jarring shift of melody near the beginning of Megillat Esther is a broad hint to the observant listener of the import of the word מס inserted the very end of the Megillah.
The third verse of Eicha continues, גלתה יהודה – Judah was exiled … and says:
היא ישבה בגוים לא מצאה מנוח. She resided among the Nations and found no rest. This provides a glimmer of why Mordechai’s connection with the exile of Judah is specifically mentioned when Megillat Esther first introduces us to Mordechai.
Can anyone who hears the cantillation of Megillat Eicha inserted near the beginning Megillat Esther be truly listening, if the words Eicha’s first verses are not then ringing in his or her head?
I submit that there is also another echo of the word מס to which Jews are meant to be awake when hearing Megillat Esther.
The Archetype of Exile
What is the archetypal, classical, original “Exile” in Jewish lore? … That would be Mitzrayim, Egypt, where the Biblical Joseph had reached high office and to where Joseph also relocated his immediate family. He had all the trappings of home surrounding him and he was absolutely accepted, even honored by Egyptian society.
Or so it appeared. Then things changed, seemingly, overnight.
The Jewish national understanding of Egypt as Exile begins in Exodus 1:8, with a King who does not recognize Joseph, a Jewish youth who had been brought there against his will and remained, unable to leave, although he rose to the rank of Viceroy and helped Egypt weather a crushing regional famine. The Jews’ national exile in Egypt began with a new King (Pharaoh) who believed the Jews then residing in Egypt had dual loyalties and constituted a potential 5th column…
This concern of Pharaoh presages the self-same innuendo that Haman communicates to King Achashverosh in Megillat Esther, when plotting the murder of all Persian Jewry (Esther 3:8)
Pharaoh says at very beginning of Exodus (verse 1:10):
הבה נתחכמה לו פן ירבה והיה … ועלה מן הארץ
And, immediately thereafter, Pharaoh outlines a plan to institutionalize the Jews’ residence in Egypt – as slaves.. Note the precise language describing the beginning of the Exilic conditions imposed upon the Jewish nation by the Egyptians. Read carefully Pharaoh’s words:
וישימו עליו שרי מיסים לענותו They [the Egyptians] set over [the Jewish nation] task-masters (literally tax-masters) to afflict it.
There’s that word, again – מס.
Diaspora or Exile?
Egypt was meant to be a place of sojourn. It was never meant to be Home. Neither Joseph nor his father Yaakov ever forgot this. Both insisted absolutely upon being removed from Egypt after their respective deaths and were ultimately were buried in the Promised Land.
Diaspora can be momentarily comfortable, as Jews have experienced throughout the ages. But as the Jews have also been shown time and time again, Exile remains Exile, a fundamental dislocation, an alienation.
The Jews in Persia were also Diasporic, to their core. But then they found themselves at the apparent mercy of Haman, who universalized his hatred of Mordechai, the Jew, who would not bow to him. Haman became hell-bent on destroying all of Persian Jewry to avenge his slighted honor.
Who Needs a Promised Land?
There are many themes and leitmotifs that run through the Hebrew Bible, but one is particularly obvious:
The Bible meticulously charts the formation of the Jewish People, starting as the household of one man, Abraham, and evolving into a nation, with a universal purpose and a particular Homeland promised first to Abraham by the Creator of the entire Universe. The Bible outlines the People’s ancient claims and connection to the Land, the family’s growth into tribes and then a nation experiencing collective trauma, miraculous deliverance, a journey to Mount Sinai, a direct, collective experience of God, then its struggle for the land that God promised Abraham’s line through his son Isaac, grandson Yaakov/Yisrael and great-grandchildren, the 12 Tribes (later known as Bnei Yisrael and, ultimately, Am Yisrael).
The Land, promised repeatedly to Abraham and his descendants through Isaac (Genesis 17:19), Yaakov and the 12 tribes as an everlasting covenant by the Creator is always present, although sometimes in the background, throughout the first five books of the Bible, the Chumash.
It can be convincingly argued that the remaining books of the Jewish canon recount the Jews’ repeated failures to accomplish their purpose in the Land and the various Exiles they experienced because of those failures.
What is Redemption?
In the Jewish calendar, Purim is a prelude to the Redemption of Pesach (Passover). Despite what Passover has come to symbolize to many Jews in Diaspora, the narrative of the Biblical Passover is not primarily a Liberation story. The redemption is not complete with their exit from Egypt carrying the bones of Joseph. Rather, the Bible casts Passover as the renewal of a national process meant to lead a People into the Land where it might fulfill its destiny to become an international source of Light.
Contrary to common wisdom, the Jewish goal of becoming a Light unto the Nations was originally tied to the cultivation of a peculiar culture within a particular Land. So, Abraham was promised a Land for his progeny …and that promise is recalled consistently throughout Jewish foundational texts, embedded in Jewish liturgy as composed by Prophets and Sages and recounted endlessly by every Jew conversant with Jewish prayer for millennia, and in daily Torah study throughout the ages.
That Word again – מס
For those who attend services regularly and listen to the public readings of Torah and Haftorah, there are still more nuances of the word מס to appreciate:
As used throughout the corpus of Biblical literature, the word מס implies being pressed into service, particularly to the construction of the Temple, the בית המקדש. Shortly before Purim, we read the Haphtarah of Parshat Terumah, which uses the word מס three times in the space of two verses, at its beginning). The word is also associated with the original inhabitants of ,ארץ כנען who refused to be uprooted from their homes.
The tiny word מס, hinted to by melody shift to Eicha cantillation at the start of Megillat Esther -and mentioned explicitly in its final chapter, is meant to be a spur to every Jew attending the public reading of the Megillat Esther – a glimmer of an idea, to be not only a memory-jog but also an impetus to action.
The word מס encapsulates the traumas that have paradoxically sustained Jewish memory and nurtured the Jewish vision throughout all periods of exile.
But, Are We Listening?
However, at the end of the Megillat Esther, the Jews of Shushan remained in Shushan … The Diaspora Jews, who at the start of the Megillah were banqueting with the King and quaffing from the repurposed vessels of the destroyed Temple, remained in Persia at the end of the story, apparently without a thought of leaving Exile. They had lost the plot of their collective history.
The Talmud gives four distinct reasons why we do not recite Hallel on Purim. Three of those reasons revolve around the fact that the Jews remained in Exile.
It seems that although Jews are famously known as the People of the Book, we have remained slow learners –and stubbornly so.
When God enlisted Moses to take lead the Jews from Egypt to Sinai and then the Promised Land, Moses’s initial concern was that the Jews would not listen to him. He was rightfully afraid. At almost every turn, the Jews expressed resistance to the notion of Redemption. Indeed, Pharaoh was never told to “Let My People Go.” A more precise rendition of the phrase “שלח את עמי” would be “Throw my Nation out.”
God knew the Jews would never leave Egypt, unless they were cast out. And even as Pharaoh sent them out, God took them on a roundabout path, lest they return to Egypt at the first sign of perceived trouble. (Exodus 13:17) One interpretation of Exodus 13:18, which says: וחמושים עלו בני ישראל מארץ מצריםis that only one fifth of the Israelites actually exited Egypt.
Megillat Esther Has Never Been More Relevant
Today, as well, nearly half of Jewry reading and hearing the Megillah of Esther, year after year, are also still sitting in Exile and are content to remain in the Diaspora. Many even idealize the Diaspora.
I would argue that these Jews are missing –and some pointedly ignoring – a central point of the Jewish story.
As Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook in the very beginning of Orot makes clear, Eretz Yisrael is no peripheral matter, no external acquisition of the Nation –a means towards general national coalescence, nor of strengthening its material, or even spiritual, existence.
Rav Kook goes on to write that even when it serves to fortify the concept of Judaism in the Diaspora, to preserve its form, to fortify belief in and fear of God and strengthen the proper performance of His commandments, such orientation toward Eretz Yisrael is also unworthy of lasting fruition, and rickety in comparison with the towering holiness of Eretz Yisrael.
Rav Kook ventures that the very idea of Judaism in the Diaspora will find true strength only commensurate with the depth of its involvement with Eretz Yisrael. The anticipation of Salvation is the sustaining power of the Exilic Judaism; the Judaism of Eretz Yisrael is the Salvation itself.
But There’s More …
In this context, we can now understand the fuller context of the complete verse in which the word מס curiously appears, at the end of the very end of Megillat Esther. The pasuk reads:
וישם המלך אחשורש מס על הארץ ואיי הים
We asked earlier: Who cares? Why do we need to know of this tax’s imposition? And what – if any – is the significance of hearing that the tax was placed on ארץ ואיי הים – the Land and the Islands?
The expression of Land and Islands, together, appears one other place in the Bible, in Psalms 97:1. There, in a Psalm of universal Redemption, we are told:
ה’ מלר תגל הארץ ישמחו איים רבים
“The Lord reigns, let the Land rejoice; let the multitude of Islands be happy.”
In eighth verse of the same chapter we are told:
שמעה ותשמח ציון ותגלנה בנות יהודה למען משפטיך ה
“Zion heard and was glad and the daughters of Judah rejoiced because of Your judgments O Lord.” This mention of daughters of Judah reminds one of Mordechai who we were told was exiled from Judah, and of course Esther, whom Mordechai took as a daughter.
For anyone familiar with Psalms and Jewish liturgy, Psalms 97:1 also clearly parallels Psalms 48:12, a Psalm about Jerusalem as the dwelling place of the Divine Presence and the place from which teachings and precepts of God emanate. That verse also specifically mentions the daughters of Judah.
“Let Mount Zion rejoice, let the daughters of Judah be glad, because of Your judgments”
There could be no clearer call to those hearing the Megillah of Esther every single year that Redemption is knocking, for those with ears to hear. Jerusalem is calling, for those who will only listen.
However, the Jews remaining in the Babylonian/Persian Diaspora did not hear and remained there, even after the experience of Haman, they chose to allow another cycle of מס be placed on the Land and Islands rather than embracing happiness and rejoicing in the Lord’s reign described in Psalm 97:1.
But there is more.
A Return To Homeland Is Not Nearly Enough
During the period of Purim there were Jews in Israel, some of whom understood that the time for Exile was over and had begun to rebuild the Temple as the prophets had predicted. However, they failed to attract their brothers and sisters and create the society that would draw the world closer to the reality of true Redemption.
Today, many Jews who are located geographically in Israel are also missing a key point of the Jewish story – their special their place and their unique responsibilities within it. The mere physical transplantation to the Promised Land is not enough. A shift in geography is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to achieve Redemption.
On every Jewish Sabbath and every Jewish holiday we conclude our meals singing the first verse of Psalm 126, in which we utterly reverse the lamentations of Psalm 137 (“By the Rivers of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered Zion”). Instead, we sing: “A song of Ascent. When God returned the captivity of Zion we were as dreamers. Then our mouth was filled with laughter our tongue with song.”
But do our ears hear what our mouths sing? Instead of plumbing the depths of Joseph’s dreams, achieving the reunification of Israel and Judah, the ingathering of Exiles and reviving the prophetic spirit, we have embraced the aesthetically attractive but spiritually vapid, refrain of the cartoonish Joseph of “Technicolor Dream Coat” fame… “Any dream will do.”
As Eliezer Berkovits said, in more direct terms: “Those who separate Judaism from Zion, Torah from the land of Israel, give up both Torah and the land. Judaism without its chance for wholeness in fulfillment is a spiritual tragedy … to embrace the tragedy as a desired form of Jewish existence is a forgery, a falsification of the very essence of Judaism. Those who sever Zion from the Torah have severed Judaism from its authentic sphere of realization.” (Faith After The Holocaust pp. 150-151).
A Concluding Thought
An epilogue: Throughout the entire Megillah we hear the phrase “Persia and Media” (פרס ומדי) numerous times – However, in that last, diminutive 10th chapter of the Megillah, in the second-to-last verse, the words פרס ומדי are reversed, so the phrase becomes מדי ופרס. The initial letter and final of the phrase themselves now spell the word “מס.”
With the letter מ and ס now at the extreme poles of the phrase, the letters which stand between the מ and the ס are those comprising the words יד (Hand) and פור (Lot). If we are paying attention, we should notice that what seems at first glance a random collection of letters actually spells out the two central elements counterpoised in the Megillah of Esther: the Lot(s) (of Haman), signifying happenstance, coincidence or blind Fate. And the Hand (of God), Who Personally took the Jews out of Egypt, signifying the Divine as the Prime Mover of History …His Story, Infinitely concerned with the fine details of our own national and personal stories.
What we have written here is a possible insight into both the rationale of most halakhic authorities, who hold that one must hear every word of the Megillah to fulfill the commandment of Hearing the Megillah, and the rationale of those authorities who hold that one fulfills the commandment if one hears only the beginning and the end of the Megillah.
We also have a window to understanding why, according to Maimonides, “A foreigner who heard the Megillah written in the Hebrew language and the Hebrew alphabet–even though he doesn’t know what they are saying, fulfills his obligation.”
The beginning of Megillat Esther is filled with hints and allegories, dreams and confusion, much like the beginning of our national and personal histories. As time progresses, things come into ever sharper relief and we understand the significance and hints of earlier happenings – if we remember our history.
It’s Up To Us
To conclude, the Talmud gives four distinct reasons why we do not recite Hallel on Purim. As we mentioned earlier, three of those reasons have to do with the fact that the Jews remained in Exile. The 4th reason given is that the Megillah itself takes the place of Hallel.
Stepping back into the story, taking our place in it and consciously dreaming, we can complete the Megillah and make it Hallel, if we choose. But today, our collective and individual choice is: Do we merely hear the Megillah, or will we listen to it?