The holiday of Purim represents a great step forward in the history of revelation and in the sophistication of Jewish religious understanding. Unlike the earlier traditions of Exodus, where the redemption from Egypt was accompanied by phenomena of a miraculous nature, and unlike the later victory of Hanukkah, which had at least one extraordinary sign attached to it (the oil that burned for eight days), Purim appears to be a purely natural, human-made phenomenon. It was achieved by court intrigue and bedroom machinations. In the plain sense of the text, its heroine is presented not as a God-intoxicated superhuman "saint" but as "the girl next door," frightened, lonely, using feminine wiles, an "ordinary" person.
Like all achievements in the real world, Purim was an admixture of moral ideal and moral compromise, which upsets perfectionists and religious purists. Fundamentalists objected that the holiday was not given in the Torah. It lacked the overtly supernatural; it was flawed by evil and human frailty and its victory was achieved by morally ambiguous methods. It would have been easy to dismiss Purim as secular, as not sanctioned by God, or to explain it away as an accident. This is expressed in the absence of God's name in the scroll.
However, by their acceptance of the Purim holiday, the people and ultimately the rabbis showed their grasp of the way to understand how god acts in history in the post-prophetic age. They realized that God operated not as the force crashing history from outside but in the center of life as the One who is present in the "natural" and in the redemptive process in which the human is co-partner.
In the tractate of Shabbat (88A) the Talmud tells a story that captures that transformation in the character of redemption and of covenant. The Talmud says that when the Israelites came out of Egypt to Sinai, God held the mountain over their heads and said: Accept my Torah or I will bury you right here. To which a scholar, Rabba, comments: Then we can pleas "Acceptance under duress" (as extenuating circumstances if we fail to live up to the covenant). Not so, responds the Talmud, in the Book of Esther, for it states that "The Jews accepted and upheld [the Purim holiday]," (Esther 9:27). This means that the Jews, by freely accepting Purim, upheld (re-instituted) the original covenant acceptance of Sinai.
In hindsight, the rabbis perceived the Exodus model of Revelation as "flawed" in that the humans were over-awed, "coerced" into accepting God's revelation and commandments. On Purim, however, the mature Jewish people, rejecting the need for audio-visual fireworks, discerned God's presence in their history. This understanding enabled them to encounter God in the reality of natural, or partially redeemed, history. They concluded that, after all, in Shushan, flawed human beings had been the carriers of divine redemption. The lesson may be generalized: moral ambiguity dilutes by does not negate the triumph of good.
If one takes the Talmudic story to its ultimate logic, it is even bolder. It says that were Jews living only from the covenantal acceptance at Sinai, the Torah would not have been binding after the Destruction. Post-destruction Jews are living under the command of the Torah by dint of the re-acceptance of the Torah at Purim time. The covenant of Purim is also a covenant of redemption, but it is built around a core event that is brought about by a more hidden Divine Presence acting in partnership with human messengers. Yet the covenant of Purim does not replace Sinai; it renews it. Purim confirms that the road to redemption continues even though we live in a world where mighty, manifests acts of God are not available.
The Talmud finds the biblical source for Esther in Deuteronomy 31:18: Anochi haster asteer--"I will hide my face on that day." (Asteer is a Hebrew pun on Esther.) Esther's and Mordecai's covenantal roles are rooted in the hiddenness of God. The lesson f Purim is that in an age of "eclipse of God," look for divine redemption in the triumph of good, even if that victory does not meet pre-sent notions of purity and perfection. To pass that up is to ask to be back in the ruddy youth of religion when the answers are crystal clear and miraculous, and redemption is untouched by human hands. By the will of God, that world is no longer. If people insist on having extraterrestrial redeemers, they will perceive themselves as living in a world abandoned by God, when in fact God is the Divine Redeeming Presence encountered in the partial, flawed actions of humans. The truth of this salvation eludes both those who explain everything away as coincidence or random occurrence and those who insist on "out of this world" revelation.
Purim is the holiday for the post-Holocaust world; it is the model for the experience of redemption in the rebirth of Israel. In this era, too, the redemption is flawed--by the narrow escape, by the great loss of life, by the officially "irreligious" nature of the leadership, by the mixed motives and characters of those who carried it out, by the human suffering it brought in its wake, and by the less-than-perfect society of Israel. In our time, too, the "purists" wait for a "supernatural" miracle. Some object because of the religiously non-observant element; others are crushed by the morally disturbing Arab refugee problem.
Just as doctrinaire feminists get hung up on the "feminine" techniques of Esther, so are ideologues put off by the moral compromises involved in Israel's alliances and by the fact that it now gets support from the Establishment. People preoccupied with the equivocal details miss the overriding validity of the Purim and Israel events, events which occurred when the moral condition of the world needed such redemption, almost at all costs. Similarly, the Martin Luthers of the world are embarrassed by religious miracles that cost blood, so they question the fundamental validity of any divine but all-too-human redemption. The people, Israel, knew then and now better. In an imperfect world, one must be grateful for partial redemption. Celebration inspires the people to perfect that redemption.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Jason Aronson Inc., Northvale, NJ. Copyright 1998.