At various points in history, the legitimacy of the Book of Esther has been challenged as part of the Biblical canon. Although the Council of Yavneh in 90 C.E. confirmed that the book was, in fact, part of the Hebrew Bible, it is clear that this was by no means a unanimous opinion. And as late as the 16th Century, Martin Luther was challenging its inclusion in the Christian Biblical corpus.
What’s the fuss over this story of the Jews being saved from the brink of destruction? The controversy stems from who does the saving. Or, more to the point, Who doesn’t. Along with Song of Songs, Esther is the only book of the Bible that doesn’t explicitly mention God – a particularly glaring omission given the near-demise and miraculous rescue of the Jewish people. Instead, the Jews are saved through the courage and determination of Esther, the one whose name means ‘hidden’ and who had concealed her Jewish identity from King Achashverosh. Just when wicked Haman’s plot seems unstoppable, Esther boldly goes to the King, risking her own life, and entreats: “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me– that is my petition– and the lives of my people– that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated….” (Esther 7:3-4)
Purim is the holiday of the hidden miracle. Even more than Chanukah, with its subtle miracle of the oil, Purim is a holiday that speaks to the way people make their decisions and find their courage in a world where God no longer speaks in a clear, commanding voice. But more than that: the Talmud (Hullin 139b) connects Esther with God’s promise “I will surely conceal my face” (Deut. 31:18) – Esther is seen by the rabbis as a representative of the concealed God.
The story of Esther teaches us that we cannot wait for others to perform acts of courage and kindness, to stand up against injustice even at great personal cost. It is each of us, created in God’s image, who may choose to make the Divine that is concealed within us manifest in the world – to turn our hands and our heart over to Godly ends so God may work miracles through us and help bring about a world of “light and gladness, joy and honor.” (Esther 8:16) The power of God to speak to us – and work through us – in a dangerous and ambiguous world is why Esther’s message – and the book that bears her name – should be celebrated on Purim.