The Star of absence/1 - Precious pages so as not to transform the world into a cage and the cage into a world.
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 20/11/2022
Esther is like the morning star that sheds light when all the others are no longer shining.
Louis Ginzberg, The legends of the Jews, VI
Today we begin the journey into the Book of Esther, one of the great women in the Bible. A nocturnal journey, like ours, in the company of an auroral light
It is not enough for the exile to end in order to return. You need to have a true desire to return, to have a living and tenacious feeling of homesickness, and then say: "I will get up and go back to my father". When we suffer for a very long time, we often end up adjusting to our unhappiness. At first, we suffer, we resist, we refuse to sing the psalms of Zion in a foreign land. But then, day after day, our survival instinct and the invincible need to sooth our pain transform the landscape outside and that of the soul, and what seemed ugly and hostile changes its face until we call the rivers of Babylon with the sweet name of “Jordan”. Therefore, when someone one day announces to us: "Exile is over" (an illness, an absence, a source of anguish), we simply continue to lead the same life as before. We remain in a land of exile and we never go home because there is no longer any home to go back to, the acorns and the pigsty have become our father's palace, and we never get up again.
The onions of Egypt are now better and tastier than manna and quail, sweeter than milk and honey – we really like them, because pain has changed our salivary glands and the sensitivity of our palate. And after waiting for years, decades, for the moment of liberation to arrive, when the door of our cage finally opens, we no longer have the strength or the will to fly free, because there is no longer any flight. We have forgotten the freedom of the heart, in order not to die. The most serious dangers of the great collective and individual pains lie in this unconscious transformation of the world into a cage and of the cage into the world. Much of the wisdom given to us by life consists in managing to never lose sight of that little door which tends to become less and less visible, in order to be able to continue longing for flight, the day when the door will finally open wide – because we know that sooner or later it will open, because it must open, because there is someone who loves us who will open it for us.
Many of the biblical books born during and after the Babylonian exile are exercises of this nature, stupendous attempts to keep the difference between cage and freedom alive in the soul, between Marduk and YHWH, and not stop directing your eyes on the horizon line of the Promised Land, beyond the grate of slavery. The Book of Esther is one of these exercises, and among the most successful ones. Not all the Jews deported to Babylon returned to Jerusalem after the Edict of Cyrus, king of Persia, of 538/537 BC, which gave them the freedom to return: only a "remnant" returned, the remnant prophesied by Jeremiah. Others instead remained in Babylon, they did not dare to fly, and many were absorbed by that great foreign civilization, forgetting everything - God, the Covenant, the promise. However, the same temptation of cultural and religious assimilation was also strongly felt by those who had returned to Jerusalem, which had also experienced Persian rule.
The Book of Esther is set in the time of Xerxes I, "Ahasuerus" (486-485 BC), in Persia. It is probable that an early version of the book was composed in a time not too distant from Xerxes, even if it was completed later (perhaps in the III-II century BC). The Book of Esther is included in the canon of all the Christian Churches (it is inserted among the historical books), even if Christians do not give it any great consideration, theological or liturgical, Protestants even less so (Luther's famous phrase in his Table Talks (XXIV), where he states that he would have preferred that the Book of Esther did «not exist at all»). Instead, Esther is a much beloved by the Jewish people. It is the last book of the five Megillot, i.e. the "scrolls" that are read during the main festivals - Canticle, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther. Esther is read in its entirety and publicly proclaimed in the synagogue during the feast of Purim (between February and March), the feast of the "lots" - in the sense of "changing or overturning the lots", as will happen in the story narrated by the Book of Esther - a festival similar to our carnival, in which (starting from the Italian Renaissance) Jews dress up and some transgressions are tolerated (in terms of wine, for example).
Esther is therefore a woman who is not part of the "remnant" of Israel who has returned home, she is among those who remained in Babylon, but wants to save her faith and her soul. To also tell us, that the risk of ethical and spiritual loss is not only run by those who find themselves far from home, because the "remnant" back in Jerusalem was also experiencing the same risk - one almost always gets lost inside the house, in the corridors leading from the kitchen to the bedroom. Esther finds herself in the court of a foreign king; she is a Jewish woman who lives among a people with a different and hostile culture and religion from hers. She is a woman of the diaspora, a woman faithful to her God and her culture, who resists in a foreign land. However, Esther is also a meditation and an aid for every believer who finds himself living his faith in the midst of a different culture, who feels all the difficulty of guarding his faith while surrounded by daily attempts to assimilate into the dominant culture. Esther is therefore also a book of ethical and spiritual resistance against every empire and every ideology, of those who do not give up, even risking their lives. In this sense, Esther is the "sister" of Joseph and Daniel, two other Jews who found themselves in top positions in the courts of foreign sovereigns, resisting, and saving. Nevertheless, if you think about it, Esther is also an image of the condition of someone who follows a voice, a vocation in life. At first, there is a collective experience and companionship, but then, one day, we find ourselves alone, among people we suddenly do not know and do not recognize even if they are the same people with whom we grew up. Our faith seems very different, too different from that of the others in the "palace", yet we feel that we cannot escape, that we must stay, and then in the end we discover that all that pain was the warp of the plot of a mysterious salvation.
Ester is a book chosen for the feast of Purim also due to its narrative style (fast-paced, theatrical, engaging, with plenty of twists and turns), which sees the presence of humorous episodes intertwined with other dramatic ones, in part to remind us that humour, towards ourselves and our oppressors, is a precious resource of people and communities during diasporas and persecutions. A late Jewish tradition wanted to link the Book of Esther to the masks based on a (possible) etymology of Esther's name which would refer to "hiding" (str).
However, hiding plays an important role in Esther. It is the only biblical book where, in the original Hebrew version, the name of God never appears. A concealment of the name, perhaps, to prevent the Persians from abusing and profaning it, but perhaps to keep God's desire alive in the time of his absence. The Bible has learned to recognize God when he disappears, to find him where he should not be, where he is not. The Bible is many things together. It is also the free space of men and women created by God from his withdrawal. The religion of fullness has always been present on Earth: of the temple, of sacrifices, of liturgies, of the cult that fills the sacred space with its symbols, images, sacred objects. Thanks to the Bible, however, on Earth we also have the faith that empties the temples, that frees human space from the objects of God so that, one day, someone may listen to a soft voice of silence. The Bible has kept this free space, so free that, in some books, it freed it from the very name of God, so that, perhaps, the nostalgia of hearing it resound within our hearts might arise.
Esther is among these liberated pages, where not talking about God becomes a beautiful talk about women and men, justice, good use of power, wealth and goods. At times, the Bible seems to forget the language about God in order to invite us to remind ourselves of the language of man, especially the language of the poor; it silences the cry of God because, in that silence, we can hear the cry of our fellow men. Perhaps we would find a new-ancient sense of faith and spirituality if we learnt to see and hear God in his absence during this profound collective and epochal night. In this sense, Esther can be a precious travel companion.
Esther is not a Jewish name – the ancient author of the Hebrew text was well aware of this and also gave her a Hebrew name: hadassa, that is “myrtle” (Esther 2,7). Esther is in fact the name of the most important divinity of the Babylonian pantheon: Ishtar, Astarte, whose meaning refers to "star", morning star (Venus). Esther is one of the great women in the Bible, a beautiful figure of a faithful, strong woman, a queen, a woman of salvation, a messianic figure. The Church saw a reference to Mary in the woman of the Apocalypse who has «a crown of twelve stars on her head» (Revelation 12,1) but we could also see a reference to Esther in those stars, Esther, whom the Christian tradition has associated to the Madonna, also a queen and "all beautiful"; and even a biblical basis for the Immaculate Conception was found in a verse of the Greek version of Esther (5,1f): «The norm applies to others, but not to you».
Esther is the small bright morning light in a godless night, as was the night of the Persian occupation for the Jews, as is the night of our time, where the eclipse of God is generating an ever darker eclipse of man and therefore of the poor and the weak. Moreover, it is important that a woman is the one to illuminate this dark night, it is indeed beautiful that this morning light that allows us to take the next step is entrusted to the lantern of a female presence. In the liturgy of Vespers of San Lorenzo, on August 10, midsummer night, in the Magnificat antiphon we can read the following: «My night has no darkness, but in the light everything becomes clear». Esther is the star of absence, which marks the beginning of a new day.