by Ziva R. Hassenfeld
The Talmud, in Mesechet Megila 14a, lists Esther as one of seven female prophets in Tanakh: “There were seven female prophets. Who were they? Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Hannah, Avigail, Holda and Esther.” The reason for three of these women’s appearances on the list is clear: They are called prophetesses in the Torah. Three of these women require some interpretive gymnastics, but their cases basically make themselves. Then there is Esther. How exactly, in the only book of Tanakh where God does not appear, might the protagonist be a prophetess and a model for those of us who think deeply about the purposes of Jewish education?
The Talmud roots its hermeneutic case for Esther in verse 1 of Chapter 5:
וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֗י וַתִּלְבַּ֤שׁ אֶסְתֵּר֙ מַלְכ֔וּת וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֞ד בַּחֲצַ֤ר בֵּית־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ הַפְּנִימִ֔ית נֹ֖כַח בֵּ֣ית הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וְ֠הַמֶּלֶךְ יוֹשֵׁ֞ב עַל־כִּסֵּ֤א מַלְכוּתוֹ֙ בְּבֵ֣ית הַמַּלְכ֔וּת נֹ֖כַח פֶּ֥תַח הַבָּֽיִת׃
On the third day, Esther put on malkhut and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, facing the king’s palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace.
The Talmud asks, “Shouldn’t it have said, ‘in royal garments?’” (instead of malkhut, ‘royalty.’) The Talmud answers, “This teaches that Esther was clothed in the Divine Spirit… R’ Levi said, ‘As soon as she reached the chamber of idols, the Divine Presence departed from her, and she exclaimed, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
In a strange move, the Rabbis justify Esther as a prophetess by giving her divine attention and access, but then take it away right when Esther needs it most, as she prepares to approach King Ahashverosh on behalf of the Jews. The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni adds to this image of Esther’s compromised prophecy by calling this moment in history Eilat Hashachar, the liminal moment in the day where there is the first hint of light. Avivah Zornberg, one of the most poignant and brilliant modern Torah scholars, explains Esther the female prophetess:
“Esther, as the last prophetess, must discover new meaning for prophecy. After her, the world of prophecy and miracles yields to the work of chokhmah, of wisdoms and interpretations–instead of the overwhelming revelations of Sinai… But this new symbolic order, which offers fragmented perspectives, also yields larger play for human will and desire… Here, Esther falls back into her own mind, into her own way of encountering God’s hidden face. A prophetess without revelation, she finds a dark light within herself.” – The Murmuring Deep
As we observe Purim, I am thinking about Esther as a role model. What does it mean to be a prophetess without revelation? To find a dark light within oneself? We inhabit the same world that Esther did, one where the simplicity of God’s will revealed has given way to fragmentary and contradictory interpretations and perspectives. Like Esther, we all need to develop the capacity to navigate this reality.
In so many ways, this is the project of Jewish education. Our students encounter pages with biblical verses surrounded by commentators who interpret each word in myriad ways. Our model of the Torah Hayim, the living Torah, is a single text that refracts into multiple diverse and sometimes contradictory interpretations. Jewish education, done well, offers students the skills and habits of mind necessary to encounter the fragmentation, become comfortable with discomfort, and at the same time keep charting a path towards truth. We are all like Esther, prophets and prophetesses without revelation. And like Esther, we too may one day be called on to act on our light within. Chag Purim Sameach!