Purim, that spring revel-of-a-holiday that is always touched with a suggestion of anarchy, falls on March 9/10 this year. If your memory needs refreshing, Purim brings us the story of an ancient Persian Jewish community that, overnight, finds itself facing a genocidal threat. Scholars are generally of the opinion that the story is not grounded in any real experience; rather, it is understood as a paradigm for what Jewish communities across time and space have experienced many times in the course of Jewish history.
If you’ve read the Book of Esther, you know how the story ends. Queen Esther reveals her Jewish identity to her Persian king who is moved to execute his adviser, the anti-Semite, Haman. A happy ending (but not for 75,000 Persians who die in their attempt to wipe out their Jewish neighbors.)
What you may not know is that nowhere in the entire Book of Esther is there a mention of God! That feels quite extraordinary for a canonized book of the Hebrew Bible and rabbis of later generations bent over backwards to read into the text intimations of God’s presence in this story.
I am of the opinion that the story is infinitely more powerful for God’s absence, for it reinforces a message distilled from Jewish history: when push comes to shove (as it often has for many a Jewish community), we must be the agents of our own salvation. That notion is beautifully phrased in Mishkan T’filah, our prayer-book: “Pray as if everything depended on God; act as if everything depended on you.” [p. 243]
While there are many in our world, of varied religious persuasions, who seem content to watch the world go to hell in a hand-basket, expecting or assuming that God will sort everything out before the world implodes, I am decidedly not among them. It is clear to me that the enormous challenges facing our nation, our society and our world demand our responses. As charming and intelligent as dolphins may be, they are in no position to address climate change; African Gray Parrots have enormous intelligence but are helpless to do anything about voter disenfranchisement. You get the idea. The changes we want and need to see in our world will only come about through our collective efforts, and all effective collective efforts begin with you and me.
Our Sages remind us, in words found in Pirkey Avot, “You are not obligated to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from joining the effort.” That’s a Jewish mantra for our age.
Engaging in Hebrew word-play, the rabbis of old referred to the Book of Esther as the “Book of Hester Panim”–the book of the “hidden face [of God]”. It feels evermore the case that God is doing one heckuva job of hiding from us. If that is our reality, we had better roll up our sleeves and work like we never have before to address the problems that beset us from every direction.
So, do join us (in costume!) for some Purim revelry on Monday evening, March 9th….but be prepared, when Purim is over, to get back to the sacred work of helping to shape a world that we can cherish and in which our children, grandchildren and all the world’s children will be able to flourish.