Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

When all the pieces fall into place

This is my March column from The Jewish Chronicle.

Megillat Esther, which is read on Purim, is among the most spellbinding of the books of Tanach. Filled with intrigue, lavish feasts, pageantry, near-destruction for the Jews, and ultimately, salvation, it has all the elements of an epic tale.

In fact, the story is such a tightly written narrative, that it can be difficult to remember that it recalls actual historical events. Unlike a dry historical account, the Megillah gives readers insight into the feelings and motivations of the players in the drama.

The story is so fast-paced that it seems to unfold in a matter of weeks or months, so I was surprised when I learned in college that the events of the story actually took place over the course of about 11 years. It is hard to imagine a modern historical account of a similar time period that would be as concise, compelling and perceptive about the meaning of events.

When we read the Megillah in synagogue, in a matter of moments we have gone from Vashti’s termination as queen to Esther’s selection as the new queen. But upon closer reading, the text of the Megillah gives us clues that Esther’s ascent to the throne took a few years, from Vashti’s banishment (and possible execution) through the rounding up of eligible maidens from the 127 provinces of Ahashuerus’ kingdom, and ultimately Esther’s coronation. Similarly, the rest of the events of the story take place over the course of several more years, finally culminating in Esther’s revelation to Ahashuerus that Haman intends to kill her people, the Jews, and the king’s decision to instead spare the Jews and kill Haman and his collaborators.

According to tradition, Esther and Mordechai had the insight to recognize the connections between these events and to record them for posterity in Megillat Esther, which was later edited and rewritten by the men of the Great Assembly for canonization in Tanach.

Although some of the events of the story seem arbitrary, or extraneous, by the end it becomes clear that all along, God was behind the scenes, orchestrating the events.

Even though God is never explicitly mentioned in the Megillah, a careful reading of the text reveals many illusions to God. For example, throughout the story, there are repeated references to “the king,” which seems to ostensibly be a reference to Ahashuerus, but can also be understood to be about God.

As one of the last books included in the Bible, and one of the few to record events that took place in exile from Israel, the Megillah is a guidebook for how to think about God in a world in which events may seem arbitrary. Sometimes life goes on for years in which circumstances may be frustrating, frightening, painful or even devastating, and then in an instant, a single event or decision clarifies the meaning of everything that preceded it.

When Esther was called upon to be brave on behalf of her people, she rose to the occasion, and suddenly it became clear why this self-effacing nice Jewish girl had been chosen to be queen. Circumstances had unfolded so that she would be in precisely the right place at the right time to save the Jews from destruction.

It is not surprising when all the disparate parts of a novel come together in the final chapters of a book, because we know that the story was invented by the writer to turn out this way. In life, however, things do not always work out so neatly. Sometimes it is hard to discern where a story begins and ends, and what it means. And, none of us has an omniscient voice in our heads to explain the motivations of the people with whom we interact.

However, like Mordechai and Esther, sometimes we know that we are in a situation or circumstance for a reason, and that we are uniquely situated to do some important task. When we are really fortunate, we can look back afterwards and see all the machinations of destiny that led to that serendipitous moment.


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