2018-02-28 / Religion Column

How the story of Purim can help us find God

Congregation M’kor Shalom

The Book of Esther was a puzzlement to the ancient rabbis who designated which books would be included in the Jewish Bible. The story includes implied transgressions of Jewish law (Esther marries a non-Jew, and the food at the palace of King Ahashverosh was not likely under kosher supervision). But the rabbis were also troubled because the Book of Esther is also distinguished by the absence of any reference to God.

Curiously, the Greek version of the Book of Esther, which dates to approximately 300 BCE in Alexandria, includes a number of pious passages that do not appear in the Hebrew text. In the Greek version, Esther and Mordecai pray to God, and God appears several times. It is likely that these “corrections” were introduced by pious scribes in the Jewish community of Alexandria, to make the story of Esther correlate with a more conventional concept of divine intervention.

Jewish commentators have long seized upon one verse in the Book of Esther as an allusion to the “unseen hand of God” presumably governing the events in ancient Shushan. Esther at first declines to follow Mordecai’s request that she go (on pain of death without an invitation) to the King to intercede against Haman and his plot to destroy the Jews. Mordecai replies that “help will come from another place—mimakom acher.”

In rabbinic Judaism, makom (“the place”) is one of the names of God. Although Hebrew has no capital letters, Jewish commentators read the word makom as if it is “Makom”—help will come not just from “anyplace” but from “The Only Place” from which help ultimately comes: From God.

Many religious traditions often assume that the experience of God must be something easily discernible to the senses. In the imagery of the Bible, God, among other things, is “seen,” “heard” and “acts.” God’s interventions (“miracles”) are most often things that are tangible, and often public—for example, the parting of the Red Sea.

But what the Book of Esther seems to suggest is a more subtle suggestion about God’s presence, in which the experience of God is something evocative, internal and subtle; something hinted at, but also something that has to be searched for.

When I discuss ideas of God with Jewish teenagers, I ask them: “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?” Frequently, it is something along the lines of “how come we don’t hear much from You anymore?” And this offers an opening into discussions about where and how in our lives today we might sense the presence of God in ways perhaps different from the ways our ancestors of the Bible did.

Or, as the Book of Esther suggests, if God is not likely to be found in the splitting of a sea or the stopping of the sun, we may need to look for God b’makon acher— “in a different place.” 

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