Note for new readers: While my blog has gotten some attention for our recent discussion of women and Orthdoxy (okay, more hits yesterday than any single day in the history of the blog), as you will tell by perusing it, the bulk of the writing here is divrei Torah, commentaries on the weekly Torah portion and the holidays. If the recent controversy has attracted you to the blog, I hope you’ll consider remaining a regular reader of the material I consider to be its essence. – JF

The Book of Esther is pervaded by an elaborate and efficient machine of law-promulgation. The king has only to issue a decree, and immediately scribes are called, the law is recorded, and it is sent off to all 127 provinces of the empire, “each nation according to its language.” In its own way, this technological marvel is something like an ancient internet. The feeling is one of immediacy and certainty: what the king says is made law, inviolable and sacrosanct.

Yet the security of this communications apparatus is attenuated by the realities of uncertainty. Scratch below the surface, and we find that all that technology creates only the illusion of order. Tohu va’vohu, the primordial disorder tamed in the first moments of Genesis, lies beneath. The Book of Esther is a story of chances and happenstance: nothing can be taken for granted, nothing can truly be controlled. Everything can turn upside down in a moment (v’nahafoch hu).

Esther famously does not mention God’s name in the entire book, suggesting that the book reflects a time and mentality when God is nistar, hidden—as related to the name of heroine herself. The tenuous relationship of surface order and disorder lying beneath is thus often linked to the hiddenness of God—God Who is order. At Passover, which will occur one month from Purim, the central ritual is literally Order (seder). Passover marks the time when God is most visible: “‘I will go out through the land of Egypt;’ I and not an angel, I and not a seraph,” as we read in the Haggadah. And the linking of order and God’s visibility tells us that God’s absence comes in an absence of order.

But turn the question again and we find something more. Purim and Pesach are both about visibility and concealment (masks and costumes in one; hidden hametz and afikomen in the other). Both are playful, inviting human participation in their unpacking—through the process of drash at the seder, and through the mitzvot of mishloach manot (sending gifts) and matanot l’evyonim (giving gifts to the poor) on Purim. In fact, Maimonides writes, so great is human capacity that one who lifts the hearts of the poor on Purim “is like the Divine presence.” God becomes visible through our actions.

Esther is the quintessential book of Jewish exile, of the end of the age of prophecy. But its message is not that God is invisible, nor that God is only manifest through miracles. It is a bit of—though not precisely—the opposite. As Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner expounds, Purim emphasizes our ability to hear when we cannot see, to develop a new capacity for experiencing the world and our relationship with God. Or as Aviva Zornberg has more recently written, “After [Esther], the world of prophecy and miracles yields place to the world of chokhmah, of wisdom, of hints and interpretations. Instead of the overwhelming revelations of Sinai—with its visual, perhaps blinding manifestations of God’s presence—there is the world in which God and the human are separated and linked by a third force—by the text, the messenger, the transmission.”

The capacity for language, for communication, is a potential source of both beauty and terror. The hiddenness of overt meaning, of the obvious messages of miracles, creates the space for God’s covenantal partners to look and inquire, to posit and guess. It also creates the possibility of abuse. The absence of the blinding light of Sinai or Jerusalem yields shadows and flickers, moments when perspective can change the interpretation of experience. v’nahafoch hu—things can be turned upside down in a moment, and we can tell the story again and find the same words yield new meaning.

Shabbat shalom and Purim sameach.

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