Chag Purim Sameach! One of the most significant and yet least noticeable details about the book of Esther is the absence of God and prayer. When Haman demands that Mordecai bow down to him, Mordecai refuses and when asked why, he responds simply, “Because I am a Jew.” He does not expand, as one might expect, “And as a Jew, I bow only to the Almighty God of Israel.” When Mordecai learns of Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews for his disrespect, he puts on sackcloth and stands outside Esther’s gate in conspicuous mourning, but he does not pray to God for help or for forgiveness for having brought this onto his people. When Esther contemplates the terrifying decision to approach the king unbidden, she fasts and asks all the people to fast with her. She does not pray to God for guidance or ask the people to pray for her protection. When the Jews are given permission to arm themselves and save themselves (killing thousands of people who may or may not have had anything to do with Haman and the plot for Jewish annihilation), they rejoice and Mordecai declares that there should be an annual holiday marking this victory, and yet again, no one gives thanks to God.
There is a lot to learn from the Purim story: there are many layers of political satire, feminist themes, warnings against our own violent natures when given the opportunities to be in the role of aggressor, and more. But the lack of God has always been interesting to me and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s chapter on Esther: “Mere Anarchy is Loosed Upon the World,” from her book, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, offered new insight for me. Rambam says that in the messianic era, when all the tales from the books of the prophets, the stories of sin and Divine punishment, will be forgotten, the story of Esther alone will remain with the five books of Moses. To explain this claim by Rambam, Zornberg offers a parable by Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner:
“Two people are charged with the task of recognizing a face in the darkness. One lights a candle and examines the face to identify it. The other, without a candle, trains himself to identify people by the sound of their voices alone. The person achieves a clearer recognition, by sight, than the other can, merely by sound. However, the second person has taught himself a new talent, of listening to the voice of the other. And when dawn breaks, the first person will extinguish his candle but will be none the wiser as a result of his nocturnal experience; while the other will emerge from it with a newly developed capacity for listening as a channel of recognition.”
Though most Bible stories show a people Israel with a candle, able to clearly see and identify God, Esther shows a Jewish leader and population who have had to learn a new capacity entirely. Zornberg calls Esther a “prophetess without revelation, [who] finds a dark light within herself.”
I feel that I’ve had the experience of being one with a candle and one whose candle has been extinguished before the dawn has broken. Throughout my late adolescence, after a spiritual experience at Jewish leadership camp, I felt called to the rabbinate and felt I had a personal relationship with God. It wasn’t that I believed in God as a person, or that I had direct conversations with God or any of the sorts of clear depictions that the Bible gives us of God. It was just that I felt there was a clear line of communications between myself and God, messages that I could clearly decipher, a path that was lit toward my future of faith and a commitment to the Jewish people. Then, around the time I was graduating college, that line of communication was cut. It took time to crawl out of the hole of depression that surrounded that severance, and it took a lot of soul searching before I found that I was still committed to Judaism and the Jewish people, and I was able to form a new relationship with God. But that relationship was irrevocably altered. I developed new ways to experience faith, to find the path toward the rabbinate in darkness, to use my other senses in the darkness to identify my surroundings.
I know that many people can relate to this. In my circles of relatively unobservant Jewish friends, probably more can relate to finding God or identifying our brethren in darkness than can relate to the experience of the one with the candle. We can all draw inspiration from Esther in this. Even when we are not sure that God is with us or if God is answering our prayers, we can draw strength from the faiths and traditions of our people and make difficult choices. We can still find the courage to stand up for what is right and be ourselves and we can still rejoice with our communities when we are successful. Then we can find Divinity in the darkness.