God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

| Purim By :  Raymond Scheindlin Professor Emeritus of Medieval Hebrew Literature Posted On Feb 12, 2013 / 5773 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

How is it possible to tell a story of redemption without even once mentioning the name of God?

In the story of Purim, the Jews overcome their enemies and are saved from destruction. In the story of Exodus, the archetypal tale of national salvation, the main actor is God. It is God who vanquishes the Egyptians through miracles and wonders; the Jews accept redemption passively. And Exodus serves as the foundation of the historic belief in the chosenness of Israel and in God’s promise that He would be available in times of trouble.

Although Megillat Esther hints at such a special providence, it is not the main emphasis of the book. Its focus is on the people of Israel, not God. Its purpose is to teach active political responsibility, not passive faith in divine providence.

The first chapters describe the court of Ahasuerus as a world of grandeur and intrigue. The narrator passes no moral judgment on this state of affairs. He describes the king’s riches in lavish, approving detail. He does not comment on Ahasuerus’ behavior in deposing Queen Vashti. He delights in the eroticism of the harem as he describes the competition to replace Vashti. And he does not judge Esther, a descendent of the Judean aristocracy, for her participation in the competition.

Esther is one of many Persian women taking advantage of a one-time opportunity to rise to a glamorous, powerful position. Why should she name her people and her homeland if it will hurt her chances? She is Persian in her speech, dress and manners; no one would ever dream that she is a Jew. And Mordecai, who warns her not to reveal her origins, is quite familiar with the life and manners of a courtier. From his Judean aristocratic lineage and his behavior in the Persian capital, it is evident that he is shrewd: quick to leap at an opportunity, cautious to spoil one. Having saved the king from the plot of Bigtan and Teresh and having watched his niece crowned queen, he must have felt secure in his prospects as a courtier.

But Mordecai makes a mistake in not bowing to Haman. The Book of Esther does not explain why he refuses to bow, and the commentators have never managed to come up with an explicit religious prohibition against bowing to a human being. The story line lends itself to only one interpretation: Mordecai misjudges his position in the court. Out of sheer self-satisfaction and self-importance, he imagines that he is above the law requiring all courtiers to show Haman this deference.

It has never occurred to Haman that Mordecai is Judean, nor is there any evidence that Haman previously hated Jews. But the minute he is told that the courtier who offended him is of foreign origin, he determines to take revenge on the whole people.

When Mordecai hears the decree, he is at once overwhelmed with horror and regret. We don’t know whether he weighed the personal danger of his decision not to bow, but he certainly did not consider the danger to his people. Suddenly, he is forced to recognize that he is not just a Persian courtier but a Jew. Haman’s decree stings his conscience, and in this moment of spiritual crisis, Mordecai adopts the practice of his ancestors, appearing outlandishly dressed in sackcloth at the king’s gate. The act is partly a ritual of mourning over the decree, and partly an external expression of Mordecai’s inner feelings of shame and remorse. For the first time, he presents himself in public as a Jew. Esther, who hears of his strange behavior, is shocked.

It is hard for Mordecai to persuade Esther to take action on behalf of her people, for she has not undergone the crisis that overwhelmed him. When he demands that she go to the king, she at first refuses. Only by appealing to her self-interest can Mordecai succeed in overcoming her resistance.

“Do not think that out of all the Judeans you alone will find refuge in the royal palace. For if you should dare be silent at such a moment, the Judeans will find rescue and safety elsewhere, but you and your line will perish.”

True, Mordecai assumes that God can intervene to save the Jews (” . . . the Judeans will find rescue and safety elsewhere”). But the offhand way this idea is stated and the overall shape of the narrative show that faith is not the point of this book. Salvation depends mainly on the Jews themselves and the readiness of their highly placed brethren to take charge of their fate.

Just as the author expresses no opposition to life at court, so he sees nothing wrong with Jews participating in political life or aspiring to power and wealth. At the end of the story, Mordecai succeeds Haman in his high rank and Esther remains in the harem. But they are changed. Both of them now know that when a Jew reaches for high status, it is his duty to seek the welfare of his people.

And so the question of the absence of the name of God is resolved. The allusions to God’s name and His intervention that generations of commentators have forced into the text obscure the author’s real intention: to teach us—through the inner development of the characters—that we Jews are responsible for our own fate, as we are responsible for one another.


This piece first appeared in the Winter 1997 issue of JTS Magazine.