This Friday, Jews around the world will celebrate the holiday of Purim – the most joyous day of our ancient calendar. Oddly enough, this year’s festival sends messages with special relevance to the fraught, anxious American moment we currently endure.
That sounds like a glaring contradiction, of course: how can feasting, merriment, costumes and even drinking to excess, connect to a raging pandemic, shaky economy, and painful polarization that leaves many, if not most Americans uncertain and afraid?
The Book of Esther, the sacred text that every Jew is supposed to hear read aloud, in public, at least twice on the holiday, provides the answer.
The Biblical book appears on a tightly rolled scroll called a megillah – the source of the Yiddish-American slang expression “the whole megillah”, meaning a long story, full of odd twists and seemingly extraneous details, with a destination or purpose that’s difficult to discern.
In fact, Esther counts as the only volume in the 24 books of Hebrew Scripture (the Tanach) that never mentions the name of God. In fact, the name of the heroine of the story – Esther – means “hidden” in Hebrew. In one sense that’s appropriate because the character takes that name to replace her original moniker, Hadassah, when she goes to live at the court of the Persian king and obscures her Jewish identity. In a more important dimension, what’s hidden here is not only her link with her own heritage (until a crucial moment, when the revelation saves the day) but also the veiled presence and purposes of the Almighty.
In one of the best modern commentaries, Rabbi Nosson Scherman observes that “the miracle of Purim happened…at a time when God was behind myriad veils of concealment…Yet it was at that time and in that place that ‘random’ links began coming together and forming chains of salvation, chains eternally binding the Jews to the earlier days when God was everywhere. The miracle of Purim showed them that God was still everywhere.”
Based on a complicated story of exiled Jews in Persia (Iran) in the Fifth Century B.C., this holiday of deliverance challenges us to assemble what Rabbi Scherman calls “God’s jigsaw puzzle.” He writes: “A new emphasis was added to Jewish history. We had to find God’s hand not in splitting seas or heavenly fire, but in everyday events… This is the purpose of world-hiddenness – to test man to find truth in the murkiness.”
Certainly, the present American moment provides an abundant supply of murkiness and muck, confusion and conflict. But the Purim message challenges us to find – and seize – the nugget of meaning. In my 2019 book GOD’S HAND ON AMERICA, I cite Otto von Bismarck who observed: “It is the purpose of the statesman to listen for God’s footsteps in history and, when he hears them, to grab his coat-tails and hang-on.”
If we listen attentively, even in 2021, we may sense the faint, distant rumblings gaining clarity and force, and hope for fresh directions for the nation that we love.
By Michael Medved