Politics, power and personhood in the Story of Purim

  • AdinaRoth3
These past few months in South Africa have felt extreme. We have had waves of hope, interspersed by disappointments, as we’ve seen a corrupt and selfish leader be replaced by someone upon whom so much hope is pinned.
by ADINA ROTH | Mar 01, 2018

Yet, even as the dust settles around President Cyril Ramaphosa’s inauguration, there are whispers that the balance of power might not be as tipped towards the good as one might hope.

The long-awaited purge of those who bolstered a corrupt president is in a perpetual state of #happeningnothappening and we enter back into the swing of realpolitik, the machinations of power, where leaders are still motivated by survival, self-interest and power preservation.

Indeed, Judaism is not a religion that vests much hope in the hands of political leadership. The Israelites were never supposed to be ruled by a king; King Saul was appointed only at the request of the people themselves. The Jewish idea is that ultimately, we are governed by a more powerful king, one impervious to the ways of bribery, ego and nepotism – Hashem.

The question, however, is this: In a world where G-d’s face is not revealed and where it is not always obvious what is G-d’s will or wish, from where do we take our guidance and how do we live?

The power of the Purim story lies in the ways it echoes through history. The narrative of the bellicose and pompous king who relishes extravagance but fails to show leadership is all too familiar. The conniving ministers who prop up the king for their own power and benefits is a mirror for our own times. And there is sheer delight at the topsy-turvy nature of the story: the corrupt minister is deposed; the king eventually takes counsel from the wise; the weak overwhelm the strong; and there is celebration on the streets.

Central to the text, however, is the absence of G-d’s name. G-d’s name is not mentioned once in the Book of Esther, one of two books in the Bible to contain such a significant omission. Yet the Jewish philosopher and Torah scholar Maimonides teaches that in the times of the Messiah, the only book to be read aloud from among our prophets and writings, other than the Five Books of Moses, will be the Book of Esther. The very book which instantiates the effacement of G-d’s name is chosen to be preserved for eternity. What is its power and its message?

The name Esther comes from the Hebrew root S.T.R, which means concealment. Our rabbis connect the central character of the Purim story, Esther, to the biblical sentence, “I will hide (haster/astir in Hebrew) my face (et panai)” (Deuteronomy 31, 18). This refers to a time when G-d will hide His face from the world. The rabbis in the Talmud have coined this sentence “hester panim” – it has become a theological description for a state in the world where G-d, the ordering and controlling principle of the world for good, becomes hidden.

This doesn’t mean that there is no Divine Providence in the world, but it does indicate a time when G-d’s presence is less obvious. According to Scottish contemporary Torah scholar and author Avivah Zornberg, when G-d’s face is hidden, there is a sense of disorder and chaos, and we feel as if we’re in a world that resonates sharply with these words by poet William Butler Yeats:: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

Some might suggest that the hiding of G-d’s face is a contraction of G-d’s overt force in the world, which creates space for G-d to emerge through the actions of ethically courageous human beings.

The direction of the story of Esther tends towards the small acts of conscience and courage which come from the unlikeliest of individuals.

The story begins with Esther introduced as an orphan, Hadassah, who has been adopted by her uncle Mordechai. Her vulnerability and passivity are revealed through the language, “Esther was taken to the King Achashverosh” (Esther, Chapter 2). She seems but a pawn in a larger plot and she takes all her instructions from Mordechai. He warns her to keep her Jewish identity secret and in the first half of the Megillah, Esther is but a passive witness to the courtly goings-on.

Then, crisis hits! A decree is issued to destroy and wipe out all the Jews of Persia. The news is made public and a wail is heard through the city of Shushan. Mordechai sends a message to Esther to intervene. But Esther is frightened. She protests that her very life will be endangered if she goes before the king.

Mordechai upbraids Esther with words as relevant now as then: In Esther, Chapter 4, 14 he says: “If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”

These words are somehow able to penetrate through Esther’s mask of impassivity, her refusal to take action, her frozen inertia. She tells Mordechai to fast and she says she and her maidens will fast for three days and nights, after which she will go to the king without having been summonsed: “And if I am to perish, I shall perish.”

The rest, as they say, is history. We know that Esther’s courage eventually turns the king around and that we are blessed with the unlikeliest of outcomes – a topsy-turveydom where the “bad guys” are hung on the gallows intended for Mordechai and where the day of impending doom turns to a day of joy and celebration.

But let us pause to consider the unlikely hero of the story – the hidden character of Esther which is not obvious at the outset. Esther undergoes a bildungsroman, a development of character, to find her voice, her power and her willingness to act from a place of both conscience and courage.

Esther’s story is indeed our own. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein poignantly says that we are all “in the state of Esther”. Each one of us, for one reason or another, has hesitations and misgivings about the ability to act.

At this time last year, former president Jacob Zuma’s reign stretched into 2019 with fears that he might even amend the Constitution to entrench his power. Then suddenly, it seemed, he was gone - and we have a new leader and promises of a new, ethical sweep.

As suddenly as this seems to have happened and as miraculous as it might feel, many have pointed to the persistent voices of activism that chipped away at the corrupt edifice, calling out corruption, speaking out at the expense of their jobs and their salaries. Many might have thought: “What difference will my actions make against such forces?”; or the almost inevitable “Who am I to think I can make a difference?”

The brave voices of the men and women who have spoken and written throughout this time are, like Esther, acting not because they don’t feel frightened. But somehow, a voice like that of Mordechai’s to Esther is able to penetrate through the web of fear and despair, and wake people up.

From that point, people have acted with tremendous courage, like Esther, not knowing if they will survive in the world of Machiavellian politics. In a time of hester panim, it is surely through listening to conscience and acting with courage that we reveal G-d’s presence in our world.

  • Adina Roth is a psychologist, Jewish educator and Melton educator in Johannesburg. She attributes some of the sources in this article to the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning


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