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Laurie Franklin

Laurie Franklin

The plot of the Book of Esther is a string of silly coincidences, and we soak it up for the sheer fun of it. After all, in Jewish practice, the story gives us an excuse to celebrate Purim, a rollicking holiday that celebrates the rescue of the Jewish people from the brink of destruction, and mandates feasting and making merry. When we read it aloud, we root for the good guys, boo at the bad guys, and laugh at the goofy characters and situations. It’s not high theater, but it sure is fun. But why does Purim teach a message of God’s presence in the form of a farce?

Let’s look at the story to find out: Tipsy King Achashverosh orders his queen, Vashti, to dance for him and party guests with nothing on but a necklace. She refuses. To punish her, the King sends her away, and to replace her, he holds a countrywide beauty contest and chooses beautiful Esther to be his new queen. Esther conceals that she is Jewish on the advice of her guardian uncle, Mordecai. Esther means “hidden.”

Some time later, Mordecai saves the King’s life by reporting a death plot against him. Soon after, the King promotes one of his officials, Haman. Haman is jealous because Mordecai refuses to bow to him. So, he builds a gallows to hang Mordecai and persuades the King to issue a decree to destroy the Jews throughout his kingdom. Ironically, Mordecai is a better friend to the crown that the King’s official.

To complete his nefarious scheme, Haman cast lots, “pur,” to choose the day for issuing the decree to kill the Jews, and that’s how the holiday gets its name. When Mordecai learns of the King’s decree, he pleads with Queen Esther to reveal her identity and save the Jews by intervening with the King on their behalf.

Esther invites the King and Haman to her quarters to wine and dine them for two days. Finally, she summons the nerve to reveal she is Jewish and that Haman plotted wrongly to kill her people. In a dramatic scene, the King stalks angrily from her chamber, and Haman pleads with Queen Esther for mercy. The King returns, and seeing Haman prostrate on the queen’s couch, assumes he is assaulting her. Remembering that Mordecai foiled a murder plot against him, the King orders that Haman be hanged on his own gallows.

As the story concludes, the King issues another decree that allows the Jews to fight back to save their lives and promotes Mordecai to replace Haman. Together, Mordecai and Esther declare the holiday of Purim for the Jewish people. Thus, the decreed day of destruction of the Jews becomes Purim, a survival celebration.

So where is God in all this? Nowhere and everywhere! Esther is the only book of the Hebrew Bible that does not mention God, even once. Yet the story line suggests a divine intelligence that saves an entire people. From a farce, in which nothing appears at it is, we learn that God does not have to be seen or named to be with us.

Laurie Franklin is the spiritual leader of Har Shalom and can be reached at laurief@har-shalom.org.

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