Now that Purim has passed, I wonder what lessons we will take forward this time around. One insidious trap in Jewish practice is to merely repeat, year-to-year, exactly what we did, said and (supposedly) learned each previous year. While continuity is vital, it should only provide the כלי, k’li, the vessel/form of the experience, not the content. Rather than a flat circle, perhaps the image of an ever-climbing spiral is more accurate. As we return, year-to-year, we need to bring all of our new insights in order to experience anew each of our observances. We need to fill this vessel with ever-new insights and wisdom!
As often seems to happen these days, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo wrote and distributed an article, anticipating what I was about to post, tentatively called “Purim and the Butterfly Effect” (don’t bother looking for it since I decided that R’Cardozo already said everything I planned to, but much more eloquently). The main thrust is that we too often see the world as a nexus of unrelated forces and events which somehow resolve into our current realities.
Much has been written through the millennia of the hidden nature of Purim. Alone in the entire Tanach, Megillat Esther is the only book in which God’s name does not appear, even once. The story itself is one of seemingly unrelated incidents, Vashti’s refusal to make a spectacle of herself for Ahashueros’s feast, the subsequent selection of Esther, a Jewish woman, to replace Vashti as Queen, Mordechai’s convenient overhearing of a plot to assassinate Ahashueros, Ahashueros‘ insomnia and the “chance” opening of the Book of Persian Chronicles at the very page describing Mordechai’s service to the king, and more. Against this background, the existence of the entire Jewish people is threatened by Haman’s hatred, but the long chain of “coincidence” leads to our salvation.
Traditionally, we’re taught that God “hid His face” during this entire period. Perhaps because the Jews of Persia were more interested in assimilating into Persian society than in reinforcing Jewish culture. ארץ ישראל, Eretz Yisrael, and our dream return to sovereignty there, faded as a collective dream. (It’s important to note that only a tiny portion of the Jews who were originally exiled even bothered to return when that became possible (through Darius, the son of Esther and Ahashueros).
The question I ask is did God hide His face in order to, somehow, teach us something about this specific salvation or, perhaps, is the point that even though we refused to see His face, i.e. to recognize that the world is not arbitrary and random, nor is it impersonally mechanistic, nevertheless, God, indeed, does direct the universe? Our survival, whether we see it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, is only a result of His direct involvement with the world.
As we start to prepare for Pesach, we begin to enter the consciousness of that set of miracles. A well-known question has to do with why He had to subject Egypt to all ten plagues. Couldn’t He have redeemed and rescued Israel in a single step? Many answers over the centuries emphasize the need to show Bnei Yisrael, apparently in great detail, God’s active participation. When we finally experience the miraculous escape across the Reed Sea, we’re told that even the humblest handmaiden saw more than the Ezekiel in his deepest prophetic visions. One of the reasons we have so much to talk about on Pesach (the main activity of seder nights–also Pesach, פסח, can be written פה סח, Peh Sach, the mouth speaks) is because of how much we saw surrounding these miracles.
When the triumphal song of thanksgiving after the sea crossing is introduced, the Torah says, עז ישיר משה ובני ישראל, Az Yashir Moshe U’Vnei Yisrael, Then Moshe and the Children of Israel will sing. Rabbi Twerski zt”l, in his precious sefer, Malchut Shlomo, reminds us of the famous question–what’s the great praise for Moshe and Bnei Yisrael? They just witnessed many months of huge, visible and public miracles! One would be surprised if they didn’t praise and acknowlege The Creator for all this. The Rabbi answers that if a person is sufficiently stubborn, even if the facts are right in front of his eyes he can refuse to see reality.
Likewise, with the Purim story, even though the entire Jewish people experienced a miraculous salvation from a well-devised and almost executed “Final Solution”, most of us refused to open our eyes. Perhaps it’s not so much that God hid His face from us as our deliberately shutting our eyes led to His face being hidden. We were, and too often still are, the active “concealer” of God’s face, his active presence in the universe.
If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? What if the forest is well-populated, but we’re all wearing ear plugs?