“Where is Esther indicated in the Torah? [In the verse,] “And I [God] will surely hide [astir] my face” (Deuteronomy 31:18)” (Babylonian Talmud 139b).
God is not mentioned explicitly in Megillat Esther. The lack of God’s name in the text we read each Purim may be the most notable absence in Jewish tradition, and teaches us that the Jewish people are obligated act to ensure our vitality and survival regardless of whether or not God chooses to bring divine intervention. This is not the same thing as saying that there is not a God who could save us in the Purim story, only that Jewish tradition recognizes that it is a fatal mistake to wait around for God to bring divine intervention when human initiative can be just as effective, what the Talmud means when it tells that we “do not rely on a miracle” (BT Pesahim 64a-b).
As a result, Purim offers a powerful lesson for leaders about the obligation for human action and the rewards we reap when we take risks to ensure our future success. Rabbi Yizhak Hutner, the previous Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, offers a powerful metaphor about what we learn from acting in the face of uncertainty. He writes:
“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 first 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” (Pachad Yizhak, Purim 34).
Rav Hutner argues that when people who could be redeemed by God act as if God will not save them, ultimately the task becomes more difficult, but the rewards even greater. Citing the interpretation by Rav Hutner (131), Aviva Zornberg argues in The Murmuring Deep that Megillat Esther “with its hollow center where God is absent, is to be read before the rejoicing and feasting of Purim begins–as though this reading is necessary to evoke the singular sense of miracle that belongs to Purim. An awareness that was dormant needs to be awakened” (115).
Purim’s lesson about the capacity for human achievement should give the Jewish Community pause in the face of a bitterly divided world. Sometimes, I watch the Jewish Community debate issues about Donald Trump, guns, climate change, intermarriage, Israel and the plethora of other difficult conversations we need to have and wonder if God is watching us deciding whether or not to provide us the answer to solve our problems. But of course, I know that just because God may have the answer does not mean that God will not require us to work out these problems ourselves. And Purim reminds me that in a moment where we cannot rely on any divine intervention, we still have the capacity to succeed by virtue of our own efforts, even if that requires us to work twice as hard and twice as long.
Many people call this kind of commitment “grit,” the ability to persevere in the face of adversity. Angela Duckworth points out that people who continue to push themselves to excel and improve will ultimately overcome those who may have a head start, but whose initial success was not of their own making. She writes:
“If I have the math approximately right, then someone twice as talented but half as hardworking as another person might reach the same level of skill but still produce dramatically less over time. This is because as strivers are improving in skill, they are also employing that skill— to make pots, write books, direct movies, give concerts. If the quality and quantity of those pots, books, movies, and concerts are what count, then the striver who equals the person who is a natural in skill by working harder will, in the long run, accomplish more…” (Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance).
In the Purim story, Esther and Mordecai had every reason to give up in face of Haman’s cruelty when it seemed as though no God would save them. Yet in spite of no divine intervention of the kind experienced by Noah, Abraham or Moses, Esther and Mordecai chose the difficult path, and that made all the difference; Esther and Mordecai chose the pathway of solving the problem for themselves and the Jewish people. And we celebrate them because taking that risk was what God wanted.
The Jewish people are rarely unified; our history is laden with numerous political, theological and religious disagreements that tore us apart. And most of the time, a heavenly voice did not come and give us the answer to resolve our disagreements; we had to resolve the problems ourselves. Purim rejects the strategy of waiting for a miracle, and instead implores us to take the difficult path, walking through the darkness even if we are not sure what other divine intervention may come, what the book of Mishlei means when it tells us that “the righteous are as bold as a lion” (28:1). And more often than not, we will come out the other side, and when we do, and our communities and our leaders will be stronger for it. May it happen soon, and speedily, in our days.
Hag Purim Sameah.