Contemporary Jewish scholars question the authenticity of the events in the Book of Esther. They claim that Esther was not of Persian royal lineage and was prohibited from marrying a Persian monarch. They also state that it is unlikely that masses of Persians converted to Judaism (Esther 8:17). But we need to distinguish between what is true and what is real. Sometimes, an event can be real even if it is not entirely true, and that is the case with Purim. We have known the reality of majority cultures hurling accusations that lead to violence against us and exclusion. That is true in the Diaspora, where Jews are a minority, and the modern state of Israel, which is still threatened by a majority of Arab states for neighbors. Historically many Jewish communities established their own local Purim holiday to commemorate their deliverance from a catastrophe. But why else has the Purim story continued to resonate with Jews throughout the ages?
The rabbis trace the origins of Esther’s Hebrew name to Deuteronomy 31:18: “I (God) will surely hide My presence on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods.” וְאָנֹכִ֗י הַסְתֵּ֨ר אַסְתִּ֤יר פָּנַי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא עַ֥ל כׇּל־הָרָעָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה כִּ֣י פָנָ֔ה אֶל־אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֲחֵרִֽים׃ The context of that verse is Moshe’s recognition of the Jewish people’s lack of faith in God and their penchant for idolatry. The Hebrew phrase “hide God’s presence” – sounds like and is spelled similarly to Esther’s name. As commentators have long noted, God’s name and influence are hidden in the Book of Esther. But God’s inaction creates an imperative for human action. Esther’s Jewish identity is eventually awakened, and she acts to save her people.
We can imagine that Esther and Mordechai experienced a time of God’s hiddenness. How could Haman’s vendetta against Mordechai morph into a near-calamity for the Jewish people of Persia? How random and irrational, the Jews of Persia probably thought! They likely cried out, “Where is Divine help when we need God?!” As Jews, we have asked that question in the darkest moments of our personal and collective history. We also experience times when it feels like God has gone into hiding. We seek but cannot find, and sometimes we despair from exhaustion in our efforts to maintain faith in what feels like an absent God. Today, we have reason to question God’s presence in the world because of the nasty partisan political, social unrest, a pandemic, and now an unprovoked and brutal Russian attack on Ukraine.
But Purim reminds us not to despair even in the darkest times. The world is not only filled with Putin-type leaders but surprises like Volodymyr Zelensky. The natural world will continue to unleash lethal viruses, but scientific and medical organizations, governmental organizations, and pharmaceutical companies have collaborated to produce vaccines in record times. Racial inequities in the United States may finally be countered with more systemic changes in its justice system. And Israel’s relations with other Arab nations continue to expand under the Abraham Accords. Without Purim, we might only experience a paralyzing sense of despair. With Purim, we can feel empowering hope that drives us to positive action.
Perhaps that is why a midrash asserts that “All of the holidays are to be nullified in the future, but the days of Purim will not be nullified, as it is stated (Esther 9:28), ‘And these days of Purim will not be rescinded from the Jews'” (Midrash Mishle 1:9). Often, we think the opposite of truth is fiction. But as Jews, we know that an event may be real even if it is not true. To move the world to a better place, we must have an enduring vision of a world filled with hopeful possibilities and believe that no external power can deprive us of our capacity for hope. That knowledge can motivate us to act, end the many forms of destruction in our world and heal the more personal events of loss that we have experienced since the pandemic began.