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Home > Holidays > Purim >PURIM FEATURE

What is God's place in the Book of Esther?

By Jonathan Groner
February 26, 2001

It is one of the more memorable sentences in the Megillah-the Book of Esther-that we read twice in synagogue on the holiday of Purim.

It constitutes a key turning point in the plot and has been quoted by generations of rabbis. But Esther 4:14, at first reading, appears to contain something less than a fully logical argument.

Let's set the scene. Mordechai, a Jewish functionary in the court of King Ahashverosh, has just learned that the king has signed off on Haman's plan to exterminate all the Jews in the empire.

As Jews did for millennia, Mordechai finds a pressure point in the government, someone he hopes will intercede and get the adverse decree canceled. In this case, it's someone very close to Ahashverosh-Mordechai's cousin, Queen Esther.

Using a palace servant as an intermediary, Mordechai informs Esther about Haman's plot and asks her to beg for the king's mercy. Esther responds that she is concerned about risking her life by entering the king's inner courtyard without being asked.

Mordechai then tells her, and here we come to verse 4:14, "On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father's house will perish.

And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis."

That is a surprising and seemingly illogical argument. One would have expected Mordechai to argue straightforwardly that if Esther does not act to save her people, no one at all will intervene and the Jews will go to their deaths. Who else would there be? And what, in any case, is this "other quarter" that Mordechai is invoking in such vague language?

As the traditional commentaries point out, Mordechai is referring obliquely to the possibility of divine intervention, and the convoluted language he uses -- "from another quarter," literally "from another place"-is a deliberate attempt by the author of the Megillah to avoid using the name of God.

For whatever reason, possibly because the reading of the Book of Esther was often accompanied by drinking and revelry, it contains no explicit mention of the holy name of God.

It is interesting, incidentally, that the very expression "from another place" can be regarded as hinting at the possibility of divine intervention. The Hebrew word "makom," which means "place," is used frequently in the Mishna, though never in the Bible as a name of God. As Arthur Waskow perceptively notes in interpreting this verse in "Godwrestling-Round 2," "A place, say some: A hidden name of the God who is the place of the world."

So Mordechai had faith that God would somehow forestall the destruction of the Jews; yet he still asked Esther to potentially risk her life by entering the king's courtyard. Apparently, Mordechai believed that when the future of the Jewish people is at stake, political action is obligatory in and of itself. We must not wait for God to intervene miraculously in human affairs.

Every Jew who is in a position to try to save his people has a moral responsibility to act. Those who refuse to do so will suffer the consequences. A modern Hebrew commentary put out by the Orthodox Mossad HaRav Kook in Jerusalem interprets Mordechai's argument as follows: "Providence will create a course of events in which the Jews in general will be saved, but you will be punished because you desisted from coming to the aid of your people."

Another way of looking at Mordechai's argument comes from the last part of the verse: "Who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis." Mordechai argues: There is a divine plan to avert disaster, and the first part of it was your selection as queen against all odds. The second part of it is that you be aware of the first part and that you use the possibilities inherent in your royal position the way that God wanted you to. God's intentions and humans' actions are inseparably bound together.

Mordechai's arguments prove convincing, as it happens. In verse 4:16, Esther tells Mordechai to gather all the Jews of the city and to organize a three-day fast in support of her upcoming visit to the king. And on the third day, Esther went into the inner courtyard, the king was pleased to see her, and the carefully plotted action of the Megillah began to turn against Haman.

(Jonathan Groner's monthly column, "The Word," appears on, a publication of Media Network.)


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