Who is the true hero of the Purim story? Dr. Ari Ackerman, Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and Senior Lecturer in Jewish Thought, discusses the concept of Nes Nistar (a hidden miracle). How do the power of Esther and the foibles of Haman and Achashverosh manifest in the drama of saving the Jews? Watch the video below:
One of the most striking features of the Book of Esther is the lack of God’s name in the entire work. The absence of any explicit mention of God is quite atypical of Biblical literature. In fact, the Book of Esther is the only Biblical book in which God’s name does not appear. The inclusion in the Biblical canon of a work that does not refer to God explicitly obviously requires explanation, and many exegetes and Jewish theologians have argued that it is related to the conception of divine providence that this Biblical book articulates. They argue that it is connected to notions such as “God’s hidden face” (hester panim) and “hidden miracles” (nes nistar). According to this reading, God acts to redeem the Jewish people, but in a manner that is less obvious and more concealed. In other words, the message of this book of the Bible is no different than other parts of the Bible inasmuch as it is God’s activism alone which controls Jewish history.
I would like to briefly suggest a somewhat different explanation. I would argue that the lack of God’s name is related to the theological message of the Book of Esther and that this message is related to the author of the book’s conception of the way that God operates in the world. But according to my reading, the Book of Esther is claiming that the redemption of the Jewish people is not just a result of God’s determining the course of history. It is also a result of the activism of Esther and Mordechai. Consequently, the Book of Esther depicts both Esther and Mordechai as devising pragmatic and effective plans that bring about a shift in the attitude of Achashverosh to the Jewish people and the downfall of Haman. Mordechai therefore encourages Esther to offer her candidacy as queen, understanding the importance that this can play for the survival of the Jewish people at the time that a weak and easily manipulated king rules. Likewise, Esther devises a crafty plan that takes into account the ego of Haman and the feelings of inferiority and paranoia of Achashverosh. Consequently, she invites Haman to an intimate meeting with her to inflame the jealousy and paranoia of the king.
A complete exposition and defense of this approach would require a more detailed argument and interpretation of the Book of Esther. But I hope that one can already see the possibility of reading the Book of Esther as a theological work that views divine providence as God and human beings working in tandem to shape Jewish history and bring closer the redemption.
Ari Ackerman is the (David) Golinkin Professor of TALI Jewish Education at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and an associate professor where he teaches courses in the areas of Jewish philosophy and education. He received his PhD in Jewish thought from Hebrew University. His most recent book is a critical edition of the sermons of Zerahia Halevi Saladin (Beer Sheva University Press, 2013). Dr. Ackerman is currently working on a monograph on creation and codification in the philosophy of Hasdai Crescas.