Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Walk Article II-Purim



Rabbi David Walk


            I know that I already sent an article this week, but I had the idea and couldn't resist.  So, here goes:

One of the most famous plot devices in science fiction is the alternate reality.  In these stories the authors make their point by placing the action in another dimension where things are just different enough to teach an idea but similar enough to our world to get the idea.  This was done many times in the old Twilight Zone series.  One of the best examples was the episode called In the Eye of the Beholder, in which there is a world which can't tolerate the truly ugly, and surgically 'improves' people deemed to be hideous.  Those who can't be saved from their deformity are sent to a distant land, hidden away from the attention of the attractive citizens.  The only problem is that when we finally get to see the faces of the actors we discover that their idea of beautiful is truly repulsive to us.  But who are we to say?  This idea is also becoming common place in astrophysics.  When Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson, director of the Haydn Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and star of the remake of the television series Cosmos, was asked what recent discovery would have excited Carl Sagan, the star of the original series thirty-four years ago.  He replied 'multiverse'.  What is that?  According to Wikipedia they are the hypothetical set of possible universes that together comprise everything that exists and can exist: the entirety of space, time, matter, and energy as well as the physical laws and constants that describe them. Believe it or not, this concept from both fiction and science will help to answer a major question about the book of Esther, and help us understand the message of Purim.

            The question comes from Rabbi Yoel bin Nun, who is the rav of Ofra and is featured in the recent book They Were Dreamers, and this discussion appears on VBM, the Torah web site of Yeshivat Har Etziyon.  The article is called The Upside-Down World of Megillat Esther, and in it Rav bin Nun lists the differences between the book of Esther and every other book of our Bible, the Tanach.  The most famous difference is, of course, God isn't mentioned in our book.  But that's just the beginning.  The book seems to be totally secular without any mention of religious practices or even religious points of view.  The salvation seems to come totally through human devices.  And the way Esther becomes the hero is most peculiar.  She enters history through the harem.  But perhaps the greatest oddity of the book is the lack of any identification with Israel or Jewish destiny.  Mordechai was exiled with the leadership of Judea at the time of the Babylonian destruction and the Jews seem content to remain on Persia Island, adrift from our homeland.  The book seems more about Persia and its customs than about Judaism and our Torah way of life.

            So, Rav bin Nun asks, 'Why does it present the events in such a secular manner, bereft of even the slightest dimension of sanctity? The entire Tanakh is a record of God's relationship with mankind in general, and with Benei Yisrael specifically.'  Great question!  And his answer is, 'In other words, were the Megilla to have been omitted from the Tanakh, we would have recognized the Almighty only under circumstances when His Name may be uttered, within a reality where spirituality can legitimately be maintained. Megillat Esther is thus indispensable, as it demonstrates God's existence even in places where His Name may not be introduced, even in situations where one may not pray, study Torah or be engaged in anything sacred. The Megilla shows us the reality of Divine Providence in the topsy-turvy world of Shushan, where everything appears to happen by chance, through a random lottery, with no spiritual dimension whatsoever.'  Good answer, but I'd like to present another.

            There are epochs of Jewish history.  The first describes the period of the Patriarchs.  It portrays a wandering tribe called Hebrews.  The second begins with the exodus and is about our people in the land of Israel as a nation among nations, and we were called B'nei Yisrael.  The Megilla begins the third era when our people primarily are in exile and we find ourselves searching for the way home, back to Israel and a normal nationhood.  In this third time frame we are called Jews.

            The Megilla presents a new universe for the Jews.  One in which our frame of reference isn't Israel and Torah tradition but that of a host nation.  We had to learn to adapt to a new and alternate reality.  There are two major changes to which we had to reconcile.  First we had a new type of enemy and second a new paradigm for salvation.

The old style enemies were very logical; they attacked not our Torah and life style but our country.  They attacked as a normal geopolitical attempt at conquest of our land.  The new genre is more mysterious.  These enemies attack us because we are different.  They want to destroy our religion as much as they want to kill us.  Each villain has to be analyzed as to specific motive and methodology.

The other new reality is called hester panim, or the hiddeness of God.  Biblical history in Israel is replete with amazing miracles when God intervened on our behalf to save the day.  That scenario would be no more.  From now on we would primarily rely upon ourselves to right the ship of Jewish destiny.  Heroes like Mordechai and Esther would lead the Jews in efforts to survive the vicissitudes of exile. The great danger would be being 'scattered and separate (Esther 3:9);' the cure would be Jewish unity, as when Esther gathered the community (4:16). God would support our efforts in the background, rather than initiate miraculous interventions.

I believe that's why the Megilla is so very different from the rest of our Tanach.  It's a new style for a new and altered stage on which we must perform.  There are alternative universes and they are all around us.  These changing realities are dangerous and require new communal skills to navigate.  Purim teaches us how to survive in this new environment, and we celebrate its victory and its guidance.  Purim Sameach!         

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