Examining the megillah’s meaning

Examining the megillah’s meaning

Rabbi David Silber to discuss his new book in Teaneck

Rabbi David Silber
Rabbi David Silber

The Purim megillah can be read in any language you understand, according to the Mishnah. Certainly that includes English.

But if you want to read Rabbi David Silber’s new book on the Book of Esther, you’ll have to stick with Hebrew — at least for now. An English version is a year or two away from publication.

Not to worry, however: His talk on the megillah Sunday night at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck will be in English.

Rabbi Silber is founder of the Drisha Institute, a pioneer in advanced Talmud study for woman. He said that his book, in both incarnations, combines six essays on different aspects of the megillah with commentary on particular verses.

“I love the Book of Esther,” he said. “It’s a very late book of the Bible. It has a totally different feel to it than any other book. Start with the fact that God isn’t mentioned in it.

“The core issue of the book is: How does one live in exile? Exile means a world where God is not obviously present, if present at all. The world is run by an amoral king. The world consists of the possibility of very bad people, Amalekites, having significant positions of power. This is a world that is not going to change. This is the world in which we live.

“The book begins and ends in exile. It does not speak about a return to Israel or the Temple. God does not speak.

“How do you function as a Jew, as a moral person, in such a world?”

Rabbi Silber’s approach to understanding the Bible is intertextual, drawing on parallel verses in other biblical books to discover nuances.

For example, one chapter looks at how the Joseph story relates to the megillah. “Joseph was another person who lived in exile,” Rabbi Silber said. He found more than 70 literary links to Joseph in the megillah, words and phrases that occur in both stories.

“For example, both Joseph and Mordechai have a red line they won’t cross. Joseph is taken to Egypt and lives among the Egyptians. But he has a red line: He won’t go along with Mrs. Potiphar. The same phrase, ‘yom viyom,’ ‘every day,’ appears both when Mrs. Potiphar tries to seduce Joseph and when Haman wants Mordechai to bow to him.

“It’s a good question as to why Mordechai wouldn’t bow down to Haman. The parallel language suggests parallel concerns and motives. Mordechai not bowing to Haman suggests that he sees Haman as God’s enemy, because he is from the people of Amalek. He won’t bow down to Amalek, to the anti-god, the guy who picks on the weak. To the egomaniac. The parallel suggests that this is his red line.

“This is one example among many,” he added. “I also look at how Pharaoh uses Joseph and how Achashverosh manipulates Mordechai and Esther.”

Jacob thanks God for letting him forget his father’s household in Canaan when he chooses the name Menashe for his first son. Esther, Rabbi Silber said, lived in a way that does not make it clear, either to the people of Shushan or to us, if “she’s Jewish. Five years in office as queen and no one seems to know that she’s a Jew. It’s not like other books of the Bible, where for example Daniel won’t eat non-kosher food. In the megillah, there’s no sense that that’s what it’s about.”

Rabbi Silber devotes another chapter to Amalek and its place in the megillah. One chapter looks at parallels to the Garden of Eden story. Other chapters examine God’s role in the megillah; how the Mishnah reads the megillah; and the question King Achashverosh.

“Is he just a fool? There’s a way of reading the megillah where he’s not a fool at all. All his decisions are very sensible ones, based on his self-protection and his own calculations about how to stay in power.

“In general, the megillah lends itself to multiple readings. It’s part of the uncertainty of the whole book. Is God there or not there? Who is the enemy, a dope or a wicked person? That conversation is as important as is thinking along certain paths.

“The Book of Esther wants to teach a couple of things. It wants to teach us the dangers of exile, and the human responsibility to do God’s work in a world in which God is not obviously present. It wants to teach the idea of heroes who put their lives on the line.

“It wants to teach us about inclusion. Mordechai adds matanot l’evyonim” — the mandated Purim gifts to the poor — “to the Persian celebrations which are just feasting.

“It talks about trying to forge a community in a world where people are living in different places, where people are alienated from each other. It’s about taking responsibility in a world in which God is not obviously present, in which people are alienated from each other.

Who: Rabbi David Silber

What: Talk on the Book of Esther

When: 8 p.m., Sunday, March 5

Where: Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 West Englewood Ave., Teaneck

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