Why is God’s Name Absent from the Scroll of Esther?
[On Purim morning in 1994, “Baruch” [“Blessed”] Goldstein, an American-born Israeli Jew who lived in an Israeli settlement near the Palestinian city of Hebron — part of the Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian lands on the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem — took a machine gun into the mosque at the Tomb of Abraham. He murdered 29 Muslims prostrate in prayer in the place revered by both Jews and Muslims as the burial-site of the forefather of both Judaism and Islam, Jews and Arabs.
What follows is a passage from my book Godwrestling – Round 2, which was published by Jewish Lights in 1996. The passage explores the nature of Purim, of the Scroll of Esther, of the tradition about Amalek, of the present Israeli Occupation, and of God. Part of it was written shortly after that Purim, a few sentences a year later. At the end of this essay is a brief comment from the standpoint of 2014, twenty years after the Massacre. — AW]
A spring morning in 1994. I had just awakened from a pleasant sleep after celebrating the raucous, rowdy, hilarious, spring-fever Purim festival the night before. Purim is intertwined with the Scroll of Esther, in which a pompous king and a wicked prime minister are ultimately outwitted by a wise Jewish courtier and a courageous Jewish queen.
At one level, the story is about a genocidal threat aimed at the Jews. By echoing an earlier genocidal threat from the tribe of Amalek, the story turns the danger into an archetype. To this threat the Jews respond with diplomatic wisdom and, ultimately, a delicious revenge.
At another level, the story is a joke: What you intend to do to me, that’s what happens to you. So, the wicked Haman would hang the Jews? He ends up swinging from his own gallows. So, the pompous king refuses to take orders from a woman? He ends by doing exactly what his Queen tells him to do.
When I say the Scroll of Esther and the Purim festival are “intertwined,” I am choosing my words with care. In the official version of Jewish history and ritual, the story of Queen Esther led to the celebration of Purim. Today, most scholars think it went the other way: A ribald festival of early spring was justified by a jokey novelet: the Scroll of Esther. All agree that the two are intertwined.
From the easy laughter of a Purim evening — reading the Scroll of Esther with its scathing humor aimed at kings and ministers; rattling my noisemaker at every mention of the name of wicked “Haman”; joining in the bawdy plays called “Purimspiels” that poked fun at rabbis, Torah, Jews, at God’s Own Self for choosing to be absent from this book — from all this, I woke to hear the radio:
Some religious Jew named “Baruch” (“Blessed”) had walked with a machine gun into the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, the Tomb of Abraham and Sarah, and there had murdered twenty-nine of his cousins, the children of Abraham’s other family, who were praying prostrate on their faces.
For the sake of God.
Yes, for God he killed them, for the God to Whom they were at the very same moment praying. Killed them because it was Purim, the moment when we are to remember to blot out the name of Amalek, the archetypal murderer who had assaulted us from the rear, killed us when we were helpless.
He turned his gun into a midrash.
The Talmud says that on Purim, we are to get just drunk enough to not know the difference between “Blessed Mordechai” and “Cursed Haman.” Between Baruch, Blessed,” and Aror, “Cursed.” For Purim is the day of inversions, inside-outs, of turning the world upside-down. Hilarity and grotesquerie.
This man had become so drunk on blood that he could no longer tell the difference in his own identity between Baruch, Blessed, and Aror, Cursed; between becoming the murderer Haman and becoming the healer Mordechai.
And he had made his gun into a midrash. A brilliant midrash.
I lay in bed, drowning out this new name of Amalek as it came pouring from the radio, saying, shouting, screaming, wailing, “No no no no no no NO.”
Twenty-five years of joyful prayer and midrash, shattered with one gun and twenty-nine lives. Twenty-five years of hope and anger, grief and loneliness, rolling the spiral of the Scroll, walking the spiral of the festivals, learning the Hebrew puns that point the path to Torah meaning.
No no no no no no NO
The Black Hole of Torah, sucking in all light, all meaning.
At last I got out of bed. I called my children, my friends, my teachers, my students. We began to weave a counter-midrash, a weave of tears and healing, not of blood and bullets. For it to have power may take years, decades, centuries in which it grows from seed to sprout to Tree of Life.
The Amalek Within
But we began. On the very day of Bloody Purim, we began. We said to each other, We will have to understand “Amalek,” the archetype of genocidal hatred, in a new way. For the Purim story does not stand alone. Jewish tradition connects it with a story from the Exodus and Wilderness: A nation named Amalek attacked the Jews from the rear, killing the women and children who had been placed there for safety. The Torah teaches that Jews must forever remember to blot out the memory of Amalek. Haman. Torquemada. Hitler. They are all Amalek.
Of course, after the Nazi Holocaust — the Holocaust from which no Esther saved the Jews — this archetypal myth of disaster bit home with intense cruelty and fear. Suddenly, Jews for whom the Amalek story had become somewhat quiescent, became attuned to it.
And then came the long, complex, and deadly struggle between the national movements and hopes of the Jewish and the Palestinian peoples. In that struggle, some Palestinians became terrorists. Some Palestinians called publicly for the State of Israel to be shattered. So for some Jews, all Palestinians become Amalek. We must “blot out” their memory.
What does it mean to blot out their memory? To Baruch/Aror Goldstein, it meant murder. He had guns and police protection; he had power. He could make the fantasy come true.
But “blotting out the memory of Amalek” must come to mean something other than murder. The key to a deeper spiritual understanding is to see that a spark of Amalek may arise not only in outsiders and enemies, but also in ourselves.
Within days of the Purim massacre, two women who had been deeply engaged in the struggle to create a feminist Judaism pointed toward new meanings for Amalek.
Barbara Breitman, drawing on her own experience as a psychotherapist, asked us to look carefully at the key command. It has two parts, she pointed out: First, “Remember what Amalek did to you.” Then, “When your God brings you safely into the land, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek.”
First, she said, the victim must fully recover the memories of victimization and abuse. Then, when we are no longer weak and powerless, when we are “safe in a good land,” we must no longer be obsessed with Amalek. For it is exactly an unrealistic and obsessive fear that will drive us to desperate acts — indeed, into acting like Amalek.
Rabbi Tirzah Firestone pointed out that Amalek was a descendant of Esau — that grandson of Abraham who was cheated from the birthright and the blessing that would have let him follow in Abraham’s footsteps. Amalek, she suggests, is part of our own family, the residue of rage that sprang from Esau’s grief and anger. Amalek is always a possibility within us, as well as within others. The Torah is teaching that even as we face the danger of an Amalek without, we must also blot out the urge to Amalek within ourselves, by turning that urge toward compassion.
These teachings showed us where to begin. Then we said to each other — :
We will have to read the Scroll of Esther in a new way. In almost its last passage, we chant verses of triumph when the Jews kill 75,000 of their enemies. So long as we understood the whole Scroll to be a fable, we could live with this bloody denouement as the angry fantasy of a powerless people: Just once, they could destroy not only those who seek to kill them but everyone who ever sneered at them.
What does it mean to reread the Scroll? At the first level, literally to chant it in a different way. We must take the verse (Chapter 9, verse 16) of destruction and read them in the wailing chant of Lamentations that is traditional for the verses that describe our fear of our own destruction.
But “rereading” must go on at other levels, too. What shall we do when some people think the story must be acted out? What spiritual and ethical dangers do we run when we – the Jewish people — are powerful but pretend to be still powerless?
We were powerless for a long time. Indeed, the last time we found a whole new Torah hidden in the white fire of the Scroll, it was precisely a Torah for living powerless, landless, bodiless, yet skilled with words. So one of the new elements that demands we search again for new Torah hidden within the old is precisely the reemergence of a Jewish people — in Israel and in many communities throughout the world — that can have a say in the politics of life.
Count up the coinage of a political power that has no precedent in Jewish history: one of the dozen strongest military forces on the planet; a strong political presence, greater than our number by proportion, in the world’s one superpower; enough clout in what was the Soviet Union to challenge its might with nonviolent courage and make the first cracks in its Goliath armor; half a dozen prosperous communities in prosperous countries scattered round the globe. We face a new Jewish reality, and so we need to create a new Judaism.
Renewing the Fast of Esther
We will have to understand Purim in a new way, and yet an old way, rooted in the Fast of Esther that Jews used to observe during the daylight hours just before Purim. They fasted in memory of the fast that Esther undertook as she wrestled with her fear of Amalek.
We too must fast to face the danger of Amalek — the Amalek that comes from within and without, that crouches in every human being and in each people. In a year when Muslims had murdered Jews in the name of God just as a Jew had murdered Muslims, we could see that Amalek lurked in every people.
So we began to see there was a profound wisdom in the rabbis’ prescription of the Fast of Esther. All fasts require self-control. On the eve of the very festival when the rabbis taught us to loosen self-control, they also taught us to remember it. They knew that hilarious playfulness is one necessary step on the spiritual path, when the distinctions between Blessed and Accursed must collapse, But perhaps they glimpsed the danger that when the clear and solid boundaries collapse, a flood of blood might be released. So they gave us first a day to confront this “shadow” within Purim.
Indeed, by decreeing that the 13tth of Adar would be the Fast of Esther, the ancient Rabbis wiped out an earlier celebration. That day, called Yom Nicanor, had been celebrated as the day of Maccabeean victory over the Imperial Syrian general Nicanor. By decreeing it would be a fast day, the Rabbis were not only putting some deeper self-awareness into Purim but ending the celebration of a nationalist military triumph. Trying to prevent the nation from getting drunk on blood.
There is an old rabbinic pun. Occasionally, in Hebrew, the Day of Atonement is called Yom HaKippurim. Someday, the Rabbis said, Yom HaKippurim would be like the Day of Lots, a Yom Ha K’Purim, a day like Purim. When Messiah comes, they said, the day when we need to atone for our sins would dissolve into a day like Purim, a day beyond sin because all sin would be transcended. Of all the holy days, they said, only Purim would still be celebrated after Messiah comes.
But the equation is also true in reverse. There must be an element of Yom Kippur in Purim, and that element is the Fast of Esther.
The Fast of Esther could become a time for us to meet with other communities and face our nightmares about each other. In our neighborhood of Jewish renewal in Philadelphia, one year after the Purim Massacre in Hebron, on the evening before the Fast of Esther was to begin at daybreak, Jews, Christians, and Muslims gathered to look at the nightmarish teachings of each of our traditions and to examine how to move beyond them. Then we sang our different chants for each other, read the Psalms that delight all three traditions, fed each other bread and the fruit of the vine and touched each others’ foreheads with the oil of anointing.
Then we went home to sleep, to wake, to fast in memory of Esther.
The Presence of an Absence
But for me, the night before the fast was haunted by the absence of the Holy Presence.
In all the Scroll of Esther, the Name of God is never mentioned. Some people have argued that God is present in a hint of Mordechai’s: He teaches Esther that if she will not act to save the Jews, their salvation will come from another place. A Place, say some: a hidden Name of the God Who is The Place of the world. But for others, it is the name of Esther, which in Hebrew echoes the words “seter,” and “nistar” the words for “hidden,” that really tells the story. Just as Esther hides her Jewishness, so God hides in the story.
In the midst of restless dreams of emptiness, arising from the darkest place of massacre close to the end of the Scroll, I saw a not-vision and heard a not-voice:
And then appeared Darkness,
Her Head wrapped in mourning,
Her tallit all black,
Her Place only Absence,
Her Voice was a Silence:
”I came to defend you,
My people beloved;
I strengthened your hand
to beat back your foes;
But then you betrayed Me.
For your hand became frenzied,
You struck down the harmless,
You struck down My children
While they reached out to Me.
On the day of rejoicing
You hollowed My Name;
In My Own Tree of Life,
You hollowed out life,
left only a mocking
pretence of My Self.
And I see — yes, I see —
That in days still to come
Your deeds will give warrant
To a child of your children,
To murder your cousins,
The children of Ishmael,
The children of Abraham,
In the Place of his grave,
On this day of rejoicing.
So My Name I withdraw —
Yes, My Name will be hidden,
For I will not permit you
to call out from this Scroll
My Name on this day.
Yet I teach you that Purim,
Alone of the seasons,
Will continue beyond
the time of Messiah.
On the day that both families
of Abraham’s offspring
turn away from their murders,
from killing each other —
On that day will my Name
take its Place in the Scroll.
On that day Purim
and Yom Ha’K’Purim
at last will be one.
On that day, at last,
This Purim will lead you
And light up your way
to the Days of Messiah.
On that day all the nations
will laugh and will dance,
will turn robes of power
into masquerade mirth;
will turn every gun
to a clackety grogger.
On that day will My Name
Take Its Place in the Scroll
In letters of Light.
I awoke to turn this Black Hole of the Torah, the Hidden God, into these words of a promise of new light. Then at last I felt free to celebrate Purim: to laugh and somersault, to turn the up side down; for then I knew that washing away the boundaries of rules would not bring on a flood of blood and murder.
TWENTY YEARS LATER: Now, in 2014, the Aror / Accursed Goldstein has become a hero, a saint, to a growing number of Israelis.
The massacre did not become a teaching toward the crucial necessity of ending the occupation. Far from it: The Occupation has metastasized, the number of settlers and settlements has multiplied, Hebron has become a nightmare where Palestinians are subjected to a curfew, are spat upon and assaulted by Israeli settlers with impunity, all to prevent their taking revenge for the Goldstein Massacre.
No body of Rabbis has come forward to urge that one verse of the Scroll of Esther be chanted in the Lamentation melody.
No body of Rabbis has come forward to invite Imams to join in renewing the Fast of Esther as a time for repentance for both communities from the bloody streaks in their past traditions and in the present actions of some in both communities.
So far, the Machine-Gun Midrash has been victorious. Matai timloch b’Tzion? When will You, Breath of all life, Creator of all peoples, pour forth Your Majesty within Zion, that Place of Excellence within us all?