Purim begins tonight, and as so often tends to happen, the arrival of this unique holiday has me thinking about what the Book of Esther tells us about what we see today. Jews’ embrace of Purim in the U.S. and Israel is very different. Here, it is seen as a triumphal Diaspora story, taking place entirely outside of the Land of Israel and telling the tale of a Jewish minority at the whims of an antisemitic regime turning the tables on its oppressors. In Israel, while it has turned into something of an excuse for bacchanalian partying, the Purim story and the absence of any mention of God in the Book of Esther resonates because it shows the possibility of making one’s own miracles happen without direct divine intervention, an obvious parallel to Zionism and Israel’s creation. These are both logical readings of Esther, but the fact that they are such different readings reinforces a point about Israeli Jews and North American Jews that one can see in Esther itself.
The Diasporic nature of the Book of Esther and the fact that it is the only book in the Tanakh (the Jewish canon) with not one mention of God are noted ad infinitum. What is perhaps as striking though is that Esther tells the story of a Jewish community that is thoroughly self-contained and cut off from its Jewish brethren anywhere else. Without knowing anything about Jewish history and only reading the text of Esther, one would assume that this is the only Jewish community that exists on the face of the earth. While the evil grand vizier Haman’s initial genocidal pitch to King Ahashverosh is that the Jews are “scattered and dispersed among the other peoples,” he confines this to the different nations living in Ahashverosh’s kingdom. It would make sense that Haman is focused only on the Jews living in a realm over which he has influence, but the Jews themselves in the story give no indication that they are not alone in the world.
The only mention of a Jewish historical presence anywhere beyond the kingdom’s borders is that Mordechai, the other hero of the Purim story alongside his younger cousin Esther, had a great grandfather who was exiled from Jerusalem. Despite the fact that, based on Mordechai’s genealogy, the Purim story takes place after Cyrus the Great allowed the exiled Jews to return to Israel, there is no indication in Esther that anyone has gone back or even a hint that anyone wants to. When the decree is issued to annihilate the Jews, there is no mention of Jews trying to flee, appealing to Jews elsewhere in the world, or deciding that perhaps now would be a good time to go back to their ancestral homeland. There is no talk of seeking outside help, no talk of leaving, and no discernible regret that these Jews who were only decades removed from sovereignty in their own land no longer have it. And once the tables have been turned and Mordechai and Esther send forth missives recounting the events and instructing Jews to commemorate them through celebrating this new holiday, they confine this request to Jews in Ahashverosh’s kingdom. If there is anyone beyond these borders who may be interested— including the Jews who left Persia to return to Israel—we are never told.
Even in the context of the Book of Esther’s universe, the Jews in the story are remarkably cloistered from each other. While the decree to annihilate the Jews applies across Ahashverosh’s entire empire, we are told only about the reaction of the Jews in the capital of Shushan. After Mordechai informs Esther of the decree to which her royal husband has given his blessing, Esther’s reaction is to ask Mordechai not to rally the Jews across the Persian Empire for three days of fasting, but only the Jews of Shushan, as if this group is operating independently of the other Persian Jews. Haman’s charge that the Jews are scattered and dispersed amongst their neighbors seems only a partial observation; the Jews appear to be scattered and dispersed from each other as well.
Ultimately, Esther tells a story of victory, but it also tells a story of tragedy. It is the tragedy of Jews who are cut off from their fellow Jews, and the figurative poverty of a self-contained community living in isolation. That Esther triumphed is a combination of her ingenuity and a heavy dose of luck. The seemingly obvious, albeit depressing, answer for Persia’s Jews is to head to Israel, but that option seemingly does not exist. Rather than rely on a solitary Jew whom nobody even knows is Jewish to save everyone, perhaps the Jews across these 127 states and territories should have coordinated together, but that does not happen until after the fact. Every group is in its own bubble, not relying on each other or realizing that one of their great strengths may be a larger Jewish people that exists beyond the walls of their own houses, or cities, or countries.
There are lessons here for contemporary politics and Jews on both sides of the ocean. For Jews in the Diaspora, it isn’t just a commentary on the fragility and vulnerability of Jewish existence, which is the most common takeaway, but the specific dangers for Jews and Jewish life who are cut off from Israel and Jewish sovereignty. There are increasing numbers of American Jews who not only feel no emotional connection to Israel but see no value to their own lives in Israel’s continued existence. Esther is the story of a community of Diaspora Jews who appear to evince similar feelings, and while everything turned out alright in the end, it was an awfully risky roll of the dice.
For Israeli Jews, there is a reminder that Jews do better as a cohesive group than they do when they abandon their own for one reason or another. We are about to enter another period that will be marked by much arguing over the best approach to Iran, and Israeli Jews are almost certainly going to feel as if they are better off ignoring their American cousins and that they have nothing in common with Jews who do not share their precise concerns. The Jews of Shushan would have been better served by reaching out to other Persian Jews; the Jews of Persia would have been better served by remembering that there were Jews outside of the empire who would have welcomed them with open arms. Going even further afield than the wider community of Jews around the world, there is yet another lesson here about the benefits of cooperation when you work with the king or the superpower rather than trying to work against it, but that is a different can of worms.
Purim is a holiday of celebration, but amidst the merriment, plenty of warnings abound as well. If we take anything away from Purim this year, it should be that Jews do much better together than they do when they are apart.