Trauma and Counter-Trauma in the Book of Esther: Reading the Megillah in the Face of the Post-Shoah Sabra

Sarah Emanuel


Sociologist Kai Erikson defines collective trauma as a "blow" to one’s collective identity and "social life." He writes, “It is a form of shock...a gradual realization that the community no longer exists as an effective source of support and that an important part of the self has disappeared.” We catch glimpses of a culture’s memories of trauma and survival of them in an array of discursive formations, including narrative. By naming, shaping, and giving words to traumatic experience, storytelling becomes an act of processing—an act that seeks to make sense of and survive the many haunting associations and dissociations that, paradoxically, signify events that exceed categorized signification. Though typically not utilizing trauma theory, scholars indirectly describe the book of Esther as taking part in this process. As Timothy Beal writes, Esther is a book “about living beyond the end,” often doing so by utilizing humor to lampoon the powers that be. However, rather than simply undermine the enemy via subversive jest, the Jews eventually turn the tables completely as they call for a mass annihilation of Jewish foes. As such, the creation of a new Jewish identity—one that appropriates Amalekite power and force—becomes another glimpse of the culture’s attempt to process, survive, and counter trauma. These tactics become even clearer, however, when cross-read intertextually with the celebration of Purim throughout the Shoah followed by the construction of the Israeli Sabra and IDF culture post-WWII. Whereas the celebration of Purim functioned more regularly as hidden resistance, the establishment of the Israeli sabra created space for both revenge fantasy and revenge reality against any and all lingering “Amaleks.” Though differing in strategy, context, and, arguably, productivity, these responses nevertheless illustrate a range of survival strategies employed in the face of communal suffering. Reading the book of Esther alongside these examples of counter trauma exposes Esther’s use of humor and appropriation of enemy ideology as articulations of post-traumatic wish-fulfillment. In short, by reading Esther as haunted by the Holocaust and the creation of the post-Shoah Sabra, we may better recognize the range of survival tactics employed in the text.


Esther; Holocaust; Trauma

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Bible and Critical Theory: ISSN 1832-3391