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Home Away From Home

The Book of Esther, which chronicles the story of Purim, has special resonance for Jewish communities thriving in Diaspora

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An early-19th-century Book of Esther on parchment, probably from Italy, with illustrated scenes from the story of Esther. (Sholem Asch Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

The Book of Esther seems out of place in the Bible, even to serious Bible scholars. Although it tells of near-tragedy, it is written melodramatically, almost as a farce; it is very hard to read with a straight face. The story and its style are altogether out of keeping with the other texts canonized as the Bible. In fact, the Book of Esther—which tells how Queen Esther saved the Persian Jews from a genocidal plot designed by an evil minister named Haman—doesn’t even mention God.

Yet despite its unique story and tone, the Book of Esther—also known as the Megillah, which is chanted aloud every Purim (this year, on the evening of March 7)—does have its place in the Bible. It forms part of a section of the scriptures known as the “Five Scrolls,” the other scrolls being the Book of Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations. There appears to be a common denominator to these short books: Each of them has a special interest in Diaspora. And the Book of Esther has a unique perspective on the subject.

Diasporas pose the dilemma of relating to an often-hostile “host” society and, at the same time, to the collective memory of a homeland. The Five Scrolls—separately and together—are an invitation to consider that delicate balance. They offer four broad responses: Return, Revenge, Takeover, and Remain. We call these Diaspora Dreams.

Return is the desire to go back to one’s homeland. The Torah is full of God’s warnings not to leave the Promised Land, and the liturgy is full of stories of yearning for return on the part of those who have left. Nowhere is the dream of Return more poignantly and explicitly illustrated than in the Book of Ruth: Naomi’s husband and her two sons die as punishment for having crossed into Moab to escape a famine in Canaan, while the bedraggled and bereaved Naomi and her loyal daughter-in-law Ruth are later rewarded for returning home. (Ruth, the Moabite, is to become the great-grandmother of King David.) Lamentations, too, focuses on Return, describing the glory of Jerusalem when it was populated by Judeans, then the ignominy of the city and the humiliation of its people when in exile; to “renew our days as of old,” the prescription in Lamentations is “return us Lord to thee”—not only spiritually, but geographically—a return to “the Mount of Zion which is wasted.” Return is the most obvious dream of those in Diaspora: to end the Diaspora itself.

Revenge is another recurring theme in the Five Scrolls, one whose target is not necessarily the host country but the marauder who forced the Jews from their homeland, or who fought unfair wars against them. In Lamentations, for example, the exiles in Babylon plead with God to strike at their oppressors: “do unto them as thou has done unto me … pursue them with passion, and destroy them.” Takeover is related to, but different from, Revenge in that its ultimate goal is to take over, or rule, the place where one finds oneself. The archetype of the Takeover dream can be found outside the Five Scrolls in Genesis, in the story of Joseph, who rises to a prominent position of power in Egypt.

It is not hard to guess why stories of Revenge and Takeover should appeal to Diaspora Jewish communities. They constitute a fantasy of deliverance without—or maybe with—the assistance of a miracle.

What is more surprising is that some stories about living in Diaspora are not about returning to the homeland, or fighting back against their oppressors, but about remaining in exile and making the most of that situation—the dream of Remain.

Song of Songs contains subtle allusions to the dream of Remain; the traditional reading of this scroll about the hide-and-seek love affair between God and the Jewish people suggests that staying put (rather than chasing each other) is the preferred course of action. Indeed, its thrice-uttered romantic dictate, “Do not awaken love until it so desires,” is interpreted by the midrash as a warning to postpone the dream of Return until the right moment; in other words, don’t pre-empt the Messiah. Ecclesiastes, too, can be read as containing an implicit message of “make the best of wherever you are” in verses like this: “Don’t say, ‘How was it that the former days were better than these.’ ”

But of all the scrolls, Esther is the most explicit illustration of the dream of Remain.

In fact, Esther contains elements of three of the four Diaspora Dreams. Haman is the focus of a Revenge fantasy, as he is ultimately hanged on the gallows he built for Persia’s Jews. And Takeover—in this case, the ascension of a Jewish queen, and the later appointment of Mordechai as deputy to the king—is also a key part of the story. But both of these are firmly based on Remain, a theme that permeates the Book of Esther and sets it in direct opposition to the Book of Ruth.

Mordechai and his beautiful ward Esther are seemingly well-off, living in exile in the Persian capital of Shushan. True, they are threatened by Haman, but they foil his genocidal plan and even rise in power in its wake. The Jews seem to continue thriving there afterward, leaving no hint of anything but the dream of Remain. There is no mention in the Book of Esther of the most obvious Diaspora dream, that of Return: There is no talk in Esther of fleeing, or going back to the Promised Land—only a concern with living safely in Persia. Living openly and freely as Jews in a foreign land is the dream, and in the Book of Esther, that dream is realized.

Living under the protection of a king, or other foreign ruler, has been a pattern of the Jewish Diaspora for centuries, and so the story of Esther has endured even as, over the years, a long list of tyrants has played the part of latter-day Hamans. Esther’s message is that Remain—staying put, but safely—is a worthy dream. The same can be said of Jewish Diaspora communities around the globe, which, while relishing the option of Return, often make the choice to Remain. And that, perhaps, is why the Book of Esther continues to resonate after so many centuries.

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Bennett Muraskin says:

Well done, but Song of Songs is obviously love poetry. Its theme is not “remain” but that men and women can love each other on equal terms. This is a radical egalitarian message considering the patriarchal cast of the rest of the Bible.

The Book of Esther concludes with a massacre of 75,000 Persians, which would be a horrible lesson if Purim was not such a frivilous holiday. And I mean “frivilous” in the good sense of the word.

I hope all of you (even those who call me nasty names)have fun on Purim!

ben zion says:

God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther. Less well-known is the fact that neither is the Land of Israel. Indeed, Esther is the premier anti-Zionist tract in the Bible. Proof: Es. 7:2. After all, when King Ahasuverus offers to give his Queen whatever she wants, up to one-half of his kingdom- which, extending as it does from India to Ethiopia presumably includes the land of Israel- Esther DOES NOT reply, “Send me and my people on aliyah, back to the Alteheim, the Old Country, Israel, where we can find existential fulfillment by shoveling manure on a kibbutz and creating a black-hat theocracy where, with rabbinic approval, you can spit, with impugnity, upon 8 yr old girls whose attire you disapprove of.”

yonason says:

I think even a basic reading of the Megillah makes it clear that “Takeover” and “Remain” were nowhere on Mordechai or Esther’s minds at any point during the story. It is most explicit that Esther was taken to the palace against her will. Furthermore, as Malbim highlights, she forsook all fame and splendor which she could have had on the night that she walked to the king’s palace, and accepted only those gifts which were given to her by the king’s servants. Malbim explains that acceptance of the gifts was the sign of the girl’s complicity as she approached the king, thus Esther was clearly not interested in any sort of ‘Takeover’.
Regarding Mordechai, the Talmud relates that shortly after the Megilla story, he took leave of his lofty post, traveled to Israel and took a position examining sacrificial birds in the Temple courtyard. He had no interest in a life of politics or royal pageantry whatsoever.
Finally, your text shows a lack of understanding of the Jewish mindset at the time, specifically that the whole reason the Jews attended the king’s royal feast at the beginning of the Megillah was because of their great feelings of dis-location from their homeland from which they had been exiled only 70 years prior, and the immediate aftermath of the Purim story was that Esther’s son Darius took the throne after Ahashverosh’s death and authorized the completion of the second temple. Even though not all the Jews left Persia and Babylon at that point, both the communities in Israel and the diaspora flourished for hundreds of years following the Megillah.
Mostly unfortunately, I believe your article expresses the all-too-common pattern of modern American Jews, which is to project our own feelings onto those episodes which are related in the Torah. If there is any reason why the Megillah should reasonate thousands of years later, it should be because of the unbridled love Mordechai and Esther had for their people, and the total devotion to doing their G-d’s will.

Philip says:

Even a cursory glance at Jewish history shows that Remain is a limited option. It is temporary. Return is the only real and lasting solution.

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Home Away From Home

The Book of Esther, which chronicles the story of Purim, has special resonance for Jewish communities thriving in Diaspora

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