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Torah Studies
Notes on our discussion from Shabbat Zakhor
March 8, 2009
© Rabbi Jack Moline

*A number of people requested my remarks from this past Shabbat. I taught from notes, but here is the essence of what our discussion was.

Esther is unusual among the books of the Bible it contains no mention of God's name. A good deal of discussion took place among the Sages (the Rabbis of Talmudic times) about whether to include Esther at all a discussion that continue to the fourth century and took place across hundreds of years.

The Talmud (Megilla 7a) brings a variety of proofs that Esther was divine in origin. Each first-century rabbi brings a proof-text that "Esther was spoken with the Divine Spirit."

R. Eliezer: Haman said in his heart (6:6) (When Achashverosh asked "what should be done for the man the king wishes to honor," Haman said in his heart that the king must mean him.)

R. Akiva: Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her (2:15)

R. Meir: The matter became known to Mordecai (2:22) (Mordecai overheard the two palace guards, Bigtan and Teresh, plotting against the king.)

R. Yossi ben Durmaskit: They did not lay their hands on the booty (9:10) (The verse refers to the Jews defeating their enemies throughout 127 provinces.)

According to each rabbi, an earthly narrator could not have known the secrets of Haman's internal musings, the attitudes of all the people, the inspiration that revealed matters to Mordecai or the activities in places distant from the place the scroll was written.

Rava (fourth century) deconstructs each rabbi's proof and suggests that there is a logical explanation for each verse that a human writer could figure out:

R. Eliezer: Haman's ego was so excessive that his suggestion to bestow such honor on someone must have meant he was thinking of himself.

R. Akiva: Esther looked familiar to people, almost like one of their own family, and thus they felt a kinship to her.

R. Meir: Bigtan and Teresh spoke in a language they did not know that Mordecai understood.

R. Yossi: Messengers could have been sent with reports from the 127 provinces.

The Talmud also brings the proof text of Shmuel, a third-century rabbi, who said:

If I would have been there when the Sages were discussing it, I would have had a better proof than all of them: At the end of the saga, the megilla reports with these words: Kiy'mu v'kiblu they affirmed and they accepted (9:27). They affirmed in the Heavenly Court what the Jews accepted in the earthly court.

Rava endorses his predecessor's proof, suggesting:
Tava chada pilpalta charifta mimlei tzanei karei
One sharp pepper is better than a basket of melons.

That is to say, one good answer is better that a lot of poor answers.

But Rava is interested in Shumel's verse in a different context, which appears in a completely different section of the Talmud Shabbat 88a.

Here, a fourth-century sage, Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chassa, brings a midrash familiar from other circumstances suggesting that when the Israelites stood at Sinai "B'tachtit hahar" (Exodus 19:17) they stood not "at the foot of the mountain," but rather "under the mountain," and were threatened by God that if they did not accept the Torah, God would drop the mountain on them.

Rav Acha bar Yaakov, a contemporary, says: Mikan moda'ah rabba l'oraita -- "this is a claim of coercion against the Torah."

Rava then uses the same verse he endorsed from Shmuel, claiming that the Jews accepted in the days of Achashverosh what they encountered at Sinai -- kiblu mah she-kiy'mu kvar, they accepted what they affirmed already.

The earlier rabbis made every attempt to find God within the text, which is the standard for revelation: something that came from God. For them, the Bible was God's word. But once that declaration was made that the era of prophecy was over, the perspective that governed the deliberations in later centuries was whether God was within the encounter, as seemed to be the case with the Book of Esther.

Prophecy, which is external to human endeavor, gave way to process, which is a human partnership with God. Mostly, it expressed itself as scholarship, that is, the human struggle with the sacred texts. In Esther, it also seems to be an historical partnership, where Jews influence their own destinies as much a God.

That's why Purim is the last holiday on our calendar. The "secular" Jewish year begins with Rosh HaShanah, but the Biblical cycle begins with the first of Nisan, which is two weeks before Pesach. Pesach is the beginning of our people's history, and God is the actor, rescuing us with a "mighty hand and outstretched arm." But when the cycle of the year completes, we have progressed to a time in which God's presence is at most concealed. Purim is the story of the triumph of Jewish wisdom, cleverness and strength on our own behalf.

That's why Purim is such a giddy holiday: we have become much more the masters of our own destiny.

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