The holiday of Purim is upon us and celebrations abound. However, Purim also offers us the opportunity for study and reflection.
This year, we invite you to consider Covenant Award recipient Dr. Erica Brown’s new book Esther: Power, Fate, and Fragility in Exile, which offers a myriad of opportunities for adult learning.
Using this book as a guide, one may prepare a pre-Purim lesson that will consider important ideas and discussion points to examine over the holiday. Alternatively, one may use it to teach a multi-week course on Megillat Esther, with fresh insights and discussions on present-day Jewish life in America.
We invite you to explore the following discussion questions written by Dr. Sandra Lilienthal, for The Covenant Foundation, to be used in conjunction with this superb new resource.
Discussion questions/conversation prompts on the Introduction of the book (pages 3-63):
“The Book of Esther presents an unapologetic narrative of Jewish pride in a land not their own.” (pg. 4)
Most of Jewish history has been spent in “a land not our own.” How has this fact impacted Jews and Jewish life?
How would you envision Judaism and Jewish life if exile/diaspora had been for a short time?
What would have been different?
Are there advantages of living in a land which is not our own?
Brown discusses two possibilities why the reading of the Book of Esther is so important (and requires that every person hear every word in order to fulfill the commandment, which is required when the Torah is being read): either it is because of its happy ending or is it because “believing in such happy endings is natural but may eventually prove disastrous.” (pg. 10)
Thinking of 21st century America and given that most Jews have integrated into American society, is our story one of a happy ending?
What could be disastrous in believing in happy endings?
“The Book of Esther presents the move from exile to diaspora.” (pg. 10)
How do you understand the difference between exile and diaspora?
Are there positives and negatives of a move from exile to diaspora? Explain.
“There is no mention of, or interest in, the Land of Israel at all” in the Book of Esther, says Brown quoting Goitein. (pg. 11)
Data shows that, in the last few decades, there has been a declining interest in Israel on the part of American Jews. What are the long-term risks of the Jewish communities outside of Israel losing interest in the Land of Israel?
“The randomness driving the plot of Esther is itself illustrative of the costs of exile.” (pg. 14)
Discuss the statement above. What is random in the story of Purim?
What kind of randomness do we deal with today?
God’s name does not appear in the Book of Esther. Brown raises the possibility that “God’s absence may signal a radical adjustment to a life outside of the Land of Israel and away from the Temple and its worship.” (pg. 44) She also posits that this might be another consequence of exile: “the loss of intimacy with God that is supplanted by the perception of life on the margins of God’s favor.” (pg. 45)
Discuss these two statements. Do you agree with them? Is it harder to maintain a sense of intimacy with God when living outside of Israel? Why or why not?
Brown concludes this section with a question: “Can religious life be sustained for Jews in exile?” (pg. 46)
How would you answer that question?
“Esther is an excellent textual stage from which to discuss the relationship of a Jewish community to its gentile ruler or monarch or to their own statesmen employed in royal courts.” (pg. 49)
Discuss the statement above. How do you think the Book of Esther relates to the relationship of the Jewish community to our government and its officials in America?
Esther “was a heroine who veiled her true Jewish identity while functioning in larger society […].” (pg. 56)
To what degree do we feel comfortable openly sharing our Jewish identity/beliefs/practice and to what degree do we feel some things are better kept veiled?
“We may read the Book of Esther as an entertaining story, a theological challenge, a discussion of governance, leadership, and gender, or a social commentary on life in the diaspora.” (from the Preface, pg. ix)
What has been your understanding of the main message of the Book of Esther? Why?