By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Purim, in a nutshell, tells a story of opposites — light and darkness, concealment and revelation. The Talmud says, “To what is Esther compared? To the dawn. Just as the dawn is the end of the night, so Esther is the last of all miracles.” The immediate question is: What about the story of Hanukkah (which happened later in history)?
The Talmud then explains, “The story of Esther is considered ‘the end of all miracles’ because Esther was the last to be recorded, inscribed as part of the Hebrew Bible.”
The decision behind that recording — and how Purim became a yearly celebration — is the subject of two interesting passages:
Two Talmudic accounts
The Babylonian Talmud records the process. After the Jewish people were saved, Esther sent messages to the rabbinical court: “Inscribe me for the generations.” This request sought not only a day of remembrance, but the inclusion of the miracle of Purim — in Esther’s name — as part of Jewish Scripture. (The practical ramification of “inscribe me” as it relates to the current celebration is that someone who only verbally recounts the story, without hearing it from an actual megillah, is not fulfilling the obligation of the day.)
The Jerusalem Talmud offers a divergent account: “Mordechai and Esther wrote letters together, requesting that these two days — the 14th and 15thof Adar — be introduced into the Jewish calendar as days of celebration.” These seemingly distinct Talmudic recollections (Jerusalem and Babylonian) may not be at odds, but rather refer to two separate initiatives: The joint initiative was to enter the days into the Jewish calendar, while Esther’s solo requests went a step further — her story would make its way into Scripture. Observing the festival would now entail reading a megillah.
But if so, why did Esther and Mordechai participate together in the first case, and Esther act alone in the second?
Two roles; two perspectives
Perhaps these initiatives reflect the respective roles that Mordechai and Esther played when attempting to nullify the decree of Haman. To begin, there is a mystical principle In Judaism that every occurrence in this world (known as “below”) has a heavenly origin or cause (“above”). Mordechai, the leader and “Moses figure” of that generation, understood that to find the nullify Haman’s horrific decree, he needed to tap into the source. So, upon hearing about the intention to exterminate the Jews, his primary occupation as a spiritual guide for his people was to arouse G-d’s overriding compassion through repentance. More specifically, he gathered all the Jewish children in prayer.
Esther, on the other hand, was situated in the palace, isolated from her community. But this setup served a vital function: As Mordechai tells her (Esther 4:14), “Perhaps you have attained royal position for just such a crisis.” Her role then was to use her influence to convince the king to save her people. Simply put, Mordechai’s concentration was to open heavenly channels and arouse mercy; Esther’s was to pursue natural pathways to annul the decree. In more mystical terms, she would prepare the natural receptacle to host the divine intervention that he would provoke.
When salvation arrived, because of their specific roles and participation, Mordechai and Esther had different vantage points of the story resulting in their different requests of how to commemorate it. Since Mordechai’s role was more spiritually oriented — awakening the miracle in its heavenly roots — a remembrance in thought was, for him, sufficient to memorialize the amazing deliverance. In this regard, observing Purim for future generations may have looked more like a day of holiness: a time to unplug, reflect, and step away from the material.
But Esther was not satisfied with this approach: She had struggled to unlock the barriers within the physical world and saw the deliverance from a different angle. In her eyes, the main achievement and beauty was not simply the divine intervention, but the way that it occurred — perfectly orchestrated within the parameters of nature. It was not the typical miraculous rescue (like the biblical Exodus), flashy and overpowering, but one that was smuggled within a string of seemingly ordinary events.
And because she had laid the foundation within the political environment for the supernatural to play out, she alone sought a more tangible testimony — a commemoration inscribed in ink and parchment, read with one’s breath, colorfully celebrated through physical delights: a material representation of an invisible but powerful force. She stamped that vision of Purim, which we have all come to know.
Male and female
In mystical terms, Mordechai is the male element; Esther is female, known as malchut. Male, this context, is obviously not biological but rather a reference to a type of light and revelation. Female refers to the vessel, which contains and conceals the enlivening energy within the mask of Mother Nature. This feminine element of divinity called malchut descends into the material world and, because of its inherent link to the highest spiritual point, it also contains the ability to convert darkness to light and to reveal that, paradoxically, an even greater divine power lies within the boundaries of the physical world.
This was Esther’s role — and the ultimate purpose of all miracles — to elevate nature. And that’s also why she merited to have her story eternally inscribed.
The name Esther
With this in mind, we can explain, more poetically, the above statement that Esther is equated to the dawn. Like the first sunlight after the blackness of night, she went down into the lowest of places to eventually bring about deliverance for her people. She dealt with the darkest characters, sowed the seeds of salvation, and changed a bitter circumstance into the greatest joy — a light that still endures.
The Hebrew name Esther itself comes from the same root as “hester,” hiding, and hints at a double (extra) concealment of good as we find in the verse: “I will hide, yes hide, My face (Deuteronomy 31:18).” The evil decree in the story of Esther was a situation of “G-d hiding His face” — a dark and terrifying time for the Jewish people. We commemorate the deliverance by reading the Megillah, whose Hebrew root connotes revelation.
The broader application is that when we find ourselves in a challenging situation, we must remember these two paths to achieve redemption and work on both fronts: First we must turn inward, to pray and attempt to open the gates of heaven (like Mordechai). In conjunction, we must lay the foundation for the blessing to manifest down here by actively pursuing the natural channels (like Esther).
And when the personal or communal salvation arrives, we can reflect on the full picture by detecting the supernatural assistance driving every event. Herein lies the main message of Purim, a Persian word for random lots: Every detail of nature, even when appearing random, is being guided. Often, the sooner we can recognize and internalize that idea, a perception enhanced through the study of sacred Jewish texts, the more we begin to see the more visible good and happiness we seek.