The great theologian, Woody Allen once said: “If it turns out there is a God, I don’t think He is evil. I think the worst thing you can say about God is that He is an underachiever.”
(Love and Death, 1975)
God made the world incomplete. God made human beings less than perfect. We are vulnerable in this life and sometimes faith is hard to find.
On its surface, the Megillah of Purim is a Godless book. There are pagan feasts of lavish food and flowing wine. There are harems and eunuchs. There is intrigue, plots and sub-plots. Outrageous hyperbole, outlandish characters. The fate of thousands is determined by a thoughtless stroke of a pen, swiftly drawn by lots, sealed by a signet ring without a second thought. At first reading, the Megillah story can be taken as evidence that God is cruel or weak, absent or irrelevant at best.
It is surprising that our Sages let The Book of Esther into the canon of the Hebrew Bible at all. Other books were shut out, so why did this one make the cut? Probably because it was already so wildly popular there was no way to keep it out. What could the Rabbis do, but make their best attempt of rescuing this Godless book from itself? In their commentaries and many creative glosses, they write God into the secular book. They read between the lines and show that of course God was there – perhaps hidden between the lines, Hester Panim, but God was there. Never an underachiever, God was there, guiding Esther, inspiring Mordechai, and sustaining the Jewish People when a tyrant plotted against us.
Rabbi Soloveitchik famously asserted, “The Jewish people were not put in this world simply to fight anti-Semitism.”
Because God is not absent nor cruel nor an underachiever, there is a Jewish purpose above and beyond survival. According to the Rabbis, Esther defeated Haman – not only by brilliant strategy, but also by faith. Mordechai replaced the genocidal edict – not only by force of political lobby, but also by acts of justice and civil service.
We are not put in this world simply to defeat Haman, to drown out his name and the names of his dangerous descendents. Even now with frightful accounts of global anti-semitism, we turn to the four essential mitzvot of Purim – to hear the Megillah, to eat a festive meal, to send delightful gifts of food and wine to friends and family, and to give tzedakah to the poor. These modest acts may actually contain the power to defeat the greatest threat of all — not an external threat from those who rise up to do us harm, but the threat from within. These four mitzvot – the joy of learning, the joy of feasting with family and friends, the joy of sharing in communal life, and giving to those in need — are powerful enough to strengthen the Jewish spirit and cultivate a life of sacred purpose far more meaningful than “simple” survival.
“Is God present among us or not?”
When our ancestors were thirsty in the wilderness of Sinai, they cried out in fear, “Hayesh Adonai b’kirbeinu, im A-yin?” “Is God present among us or not?” The very next words account the brutal attack by a blood-thirsty enemy, Amalek. Moses raised his hands up over the people and over the battlefield, while Joshua led the defensive. When Moses’ hands were held high, the Israelites prevailed; when Moses grew weary and let his hands fall, Amalek prevailed. So Aaron and Hur came to support Moses – one on either side of him. “Vayehi yadav emunah ad bo hashemesh” “Thus his hands remained faithful/steady until the sunset.” This is the definition of Jewish heroism – from Moses, to Esther, to us. Whether on the battlefield or at the Shabbat table or in renewing a synagogue community or in giving warm shelter to the homeless -– it is a triumphant act of Jewish heroics when faith cuts through fear. When words of goodness and acts of justice break through terror. When the future we build defies the logic of bleak history.
“Hayesh Adonai b’kirbeinu, im A-yin?” “Is God present among us or not?” This is a question which springs from fear. Let us ask instead a question of faith: “What can I do to place myself in the Presence of God?” “What ought I do to reveal God’s Presence before me and before the eyes of all the world?” These questions spring from strength and the search for a purposeful life. Just asking these questions, immediately puts us on the honourable and well-worn path of the Jewish People. It is written: For the Jews in the days of Esther and Mordechai “there was light and simcha, joy and honour.” Kein tihyeh lanu! So may it be for us!