Megillas Esther contains deep themes of identity, boundaries, and communication. The theme of identity is spotlighted when Esther outs herself as a proud Jew. In Tractate Megillah, the Talmud begins its analysis of the Purim story by showing how walled and unwalled cities celebrate Purim differently. The Megillah refers to itself as a letter; letter writing and communication in general are also primary motifs of the Purim story.
These themes are intertwined. Boundaries create differentiation and thus identity. Identity, in turn, creates the need for communication to express ourselves. Letters allow us to share our identity across boundaries of time, space, and walls.
The Megillah has two contrasting forms of communication: letters and books. When reading the Purim story, one is struck by the impact and immediacy of time. You can feel the urgency coursing through the story. This urgency is a key characteristic of a letter. A letter is valuable and relevant only if timely. Contrast this to a book, a medium that need not be timely but has a much longer shelf life.
When the Megillah deals with written communication, it differentiates between a letter and a book. King Achashverosh has a book of days and a book of memories, which he consults when he can’t sleep. Achashverosh sends out a letter to destroy the Jewish people. He rescinds it by sending a second. The Megillah tells us the speed of the messengers and describes letters whose contents are revealed and letters whose contents remain a secret until the chosen day. Timeliness is everything.
Speed and timeliness are more than characteristics of letters. They are part of the urgency that flows through the entire Megillah. Urgency is a phenomenon of the present moment. In the Megillah, the people who are not “with it” and don’t stay up to speed are disgraced and killed. Vashti is executed for not coming immediately upon the king’s request. Haman is killed because Esther chose her remarks with wit and timing.
It's interesting to note that the mitzvos of Purim deal with the moment (the mitzvos of the day are all time-bound mitzvos). These Purim mitzvos don’t focus on existential improvement; in fact, some of them seem to focus exclusively on the present moment or flow. (For example, giving to any person who sticks out his hand, regardless of whether a real need exists.)
A letter and a book both contain information. A letter's information is relevant and often transient. Its value fades as time passes. But in the moment, letters are urgent. Their speed and insistence can affect the course of history. The pro-Constitution forces (following the American Revolution) defeated the anti-Constitution forces because they controlled the government post office and could delay their opponent’s mail. Perhaps they were using Mordechai’s trick of manipulating the mail to achieve victory.
A book is different. A book contains important truths, but a book doesn't have the same urgency and transiency of a letter or a pamphlet. The Megillah is a letter; a fact emphasized by halacha (Jewish law). We don't roll up the Megillah like a scroll, hiding the pages after they have been read. Rather, the custom is to leave the completed pages open like a letter. With a book, every completed page is hidden. Once read, the page is no longer immediately relevant. But an urgent letter is not put away after it is read; rather, it is pored over. It has important consequences. Have you ever opened a piece of mail and found that it changed your life?
There are times for books and times for letters. When times are tranquil, we have the opportunity to limit our study to eternal truths. We can rely completely on timeless books. But in exile, the Megillah is our guide. We must be sensitive to letters. We must be sensitive to balancing timeless wisdom with the needs of the moment.
By Ariel Levi