By Ilana Kurshan
Among the laws governing the reading of the scroll of Esther discussed in tractate Megillah is the stipulation that the megillah may not be read backwards: “One who reads the megillah backwards has not fulfilled one's obligation” (17a). The story of the Jews in Shushan unfolds in linear progression, moving from “sorrow to joy and from mourning to festivity,” as we learn only in the penultimate chapter (9:22). Of course, since we read the megillah every year on Purim, we already know how it will end, and the triumphant hanging of the evil villain Haman whose plot to exterminate the Jews was foiled by the beautiful Queen Esther comes as no surprise. Even so, we are commanded each year to read the Megillah with a sense of “who knows,”inhabiting a world of lottery and chance in which we cannot divine the ending but can only pray for a better outcome. As Esther’s uncle Mordechai says to her, “Who knows, perhaps you have attained a royal position for just such a moment” (4:14).
I write these words on Rosh Chodesh Adar of 5773 (2013), exactly six years after I first learned Maskhet Megillah in daf yomi. I sit here nine months pregnant with twins, thinking back to a time when I did not know if I would ever get married again, let alone be privileged to bring children into the world. I try to put myself in the shoes of the person I was back then, pretending that I don’t already know about all the twists and turns that life would take to sustain me and enable me to reach this day. As I try to identify with that uncertainty, I am struck by the realization that in a world ofhester panim—a world where God’s face is hidden—the sense of “who knows” never completely dissipates. We may have a wider vista now that we have ascended to the top of one difficult mountain, but other, higher mountains lie ahead, and there is no guarantee that we will surmount them as well.
I think about this metaphor as I lie in bed, looking over the mountain that is my pregnant belly and wondering if I will ever be able to see directly down to my feet again. Last summer, when I first learned I was pregnant, I remember looking at the calendar and thinking that I’d probably give birth between Tu B’shvat and Purim. Tu B’shvat is over and gone, and with it all the flower and tree names we played around with these past few months. Today we ushered in Adar, the month of joy, and my husband reminded me that Rosh Hodesh Adar would make a great birthday. At this point, though, I don’t need any reminders. Everyone who sends me e-mails, surely in an attempt to be thoughtful and considerate, prefaces their messages with, “I’m not sure if you’re in the throes of labor as I’m sending this,” or “I wonder if you have already given birth.” No, no, not yet. The new month, whose invisible new moon is not even the barest sliver of a crescent, has not yet revealed what it holds in store. Still, it is a good thing to have made it to 39 weeks in a twin pregnancy. As a friend just reminded me, the zodiac symbol for Adar is two fish, perhaps because Adar is the one month that can fall out twice in a shana meuberet, a leap or "pregnant" year. But the symbol is also pregnant with personal meaning, since I have swam nearly every day these past nine months. “Are you teaching your babies how to swim?” the ladies at the pool always ask me. “Oh no, they are swimming already,” I assure them, imagining my two little fetus-fish awash in their individual sacs of amniotic fluid. At some point the seas will split and they will be cast on to dry land –hopefully long before Pesach, as I exhausted those metaphors in my previous pregnancy.
Meanwhile, as Purim approaches, I think of Esther enjoining the people to come together in fervent prayer that all should proceed smoothly when she risks her life to approach King Ahaseuerus (the last five letters of whose name, as commonly transliterated, are a near-anagram of uterus). The Talmud in the first chapter of Megillah interprets the verse that describes Esther’s reaction to hearing of the king’s decree to destroy and massacre all the Jews: “Va-tithalhal hamalka meod.”The word “Va-tithalhal,” often translated as “became agitated,” provides fodder for the midrashic imagination: “What is Va-tithalhal? Rav says: She became a menstruant. Rabbi Yirmiya says, “She suffered a miscarriage” (15a). Rashi explains that the cavities of her body dissolved. All these interpreters are playing with the etymological similarity between Va-tithalhal and “halal,” the Hebrew word for cavity or hole and the nomenclatural hallmark of the N’keva, the female. I wonder if maybe Esther heard the news and felt like she was in labor, bearing inside her womb the destiny of the Jewish people.
Sitting here on Rosh Hodesh Adar, attuned to the first signs of any contractions, I do not know when I will begin to feel changes in the holes and cavities of my body. The megillah is ten chapters, and I am already at the end of my ninth month – but I cannot scroll ahead to find out what happens in chapter ten. We read the megillah in order and live our lives day by day, and as Mordechai tells Esther “who knows” what tomorrow will bring. But as Adar begins, joy increases, and I can only pray that for us, too, it will be so.