Mordechai presses Esther with these words, urging her to appear before the king unbidden to speak out against the impending destruction of the Jews. This verb l’hacharish, להחריש, to keep silent, is doubled for emphasis. It is cantillated in a slow, descending scale, further dramatizing just how much hangs in the balance. “If you remain silent at such a time, though relief may come to the Jews from somewhere else, you and your line will perish.” (Esther 4:14)
In another story, much earlier in our saga, the verb l’hacharish figures prominently as well. Facing the sea with Egyptians closing in from behind, the Israelites panic. Moshe calms them with the words “Let YH do battle for you; and you — you remain silent, va’atem tacharishun.” (Ex 14:13)
In the Pesach story, we must be silent to allow YH to act. In the Purim story, we dare not be silent. The juxtaposition of these two attitudes highlights an essential difference between the Pesach redemption and the Purim redemption.
The Pesach Redemption is of Divine intervention. The miraculous redeeming Hand of God subverts creation itself to prove to Pharaoh that he is not the ultimate ruler. The showdown in the Exodus story is between the Power of YH and the would-be-God. The People of Israel do not drive this drama. Moshe tells us, “Be silent, va’atem tacharishun!”
The story of Purim, on the other hand, is a wild cascade of blind luck. The Divine does not appear as a character. There is no upending of creation. The arena is the world of political power and status, full of petty and grandiose moves. In the absence of a righteous, intervening Hand of Justice, it is imperative that Esther not be silent.
This she does, but there is nothing visionary in her utilitarian plea for survival. She does not challenge Achashverosh’s rash abuse of power. She makes no appeal to righteousness. The redemption of Purim remains, to the end, a fortuitous win in a broken world that remains broken. Even in her speaking up, Esther apologizes, “Were we only being sold for slavery, I would have stayed silent, hecherashti; for it would not be worth the cost to His Majesty.” (Esther 7:4)
The Talmud refers to Esther as “The Dawn” as her story heralds the end of the age of miracles where the Hand of God is no longer apparent. This is our familiar world. We do not sit silent waiting for salvation. The problem with staying silent is the sin of ‘standing idly by’ and the culpability of passivity. We speak out. We advocate. We enter into the arena of politics, even when we find ourselves in the court of a clown or a villain like Achashverosh, where prejudices, lies, bribes and pride prevail.
The very rhythm of our sacred calendar negotiates the stark juxtaposition between the Purim and the Pesach realities. Purim is the last festival of the year, Pesach the first. One month apart, they are linked together ritually by four weeks of special, timely Torah readings. In a leap year, we push off Purim to the thirteenth month, Adar II, so that the proximity between Purim and Pesach remains undisturbed. In the words of the Talmud (Megillah 6b), the one redemption should be kept close to the other redemption.
The difficulty in this world, though, is that we cannot know which actions will end up being wise and effective. But it is a fallacy to view these two paradigms — remaining silent or speaking out — as two distinct choices of behavior. As Jews, we know well how to have two separate pockets that hold opposite messages.
Living in this world as activists entails navigating our way through chaotic weather storms of ego, honor, righteousness, pragmatism, defensiveness, hatred and hope. We ask for humility, wisdom and perseverance in maintaining the balance between the still silence of surrender, and the never silent voice of advocacy. As we enter this season of joy and redemption, let us continue to pray, to work and to wait for a lasting and just peace in the Land of Israel for all its inhabitants.
Rabbi Vivie Mayer is the Director of the Beit Midrash and the Mechinah Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She graduated from RRC in 1996.