Purim and the ability to “see” miracles
In 2016, I was honored to give an ELI Talk about miracles. It was taped in December, close to Chanukah, the holiday we typically associate with miracles. As Purim approaches, though, I am reminded of how the questions I raised in the talk truthfully apply to Purim as well, maybe even more so, as the miracles we thank G-d for in the Purim Al HaNisim are sort of hidden as well. I had asked myself why God presented the Children of Israel with so many open miracles in the Torah, while we today were left “in the dark” when it came to miracles. I wanted to see miracles like the Biblical ones – you know, the “Hollywood” kind of miracle!
I thought about my ancestors who had been slaves in Egypt for over 200 years. They were overworked, whipped, sweat in their eyes, mixed with tears of suffering. But then they cried out to God, God heard them! With an outstretched arm, God took my ancestors out of bondage. And just as they breathed with relief, they reached the Sea, felt the splashing of the waves on their faces! But they also heard Pharaoh’s army behind them. They felt the thumping of the Egyptian horses in their bodies. It seemed as if death was certain. But right there and then, God made a miracle, and the Sea split! Had we lived in those days, we would be as certain as they were that God was there, and that God made miracles happen!
But I was not there. And loud miracles were not happening to my generation. Why was God not making miracles happen? Was I – were we – unworthy of miracles? Did miracles still happen? Was God still around? In searching for answers to these questions, I came up with an analogy which I think explains why we no longer see open miracles like those of Biblical times. Comparing our relationship to God to that of children and parents, I proposed that as we grow and mature, there is a natural physical distancing between parent and child.
When we were newborns, every time we opened our eyes, in all likelihood the first thing we would see was a parent’s face. That face would be there when we ate, were being bathed or dressed, when we woke up and when we went to sleep. It was always right there – you could not miss it.
But as we became toddlers and started learning how to walk, our parents were not in front of us. They were at our side, holding our hand, allowing us to take our first few steps. We could feel their hand in ours. But in order to see their face, we would have to turn our head a little.
And then we learned how to run and were able to get away from our parents! Now they were not in front of us, nor at our side, holding our hand. They were behind us, ready to jump in and pick us up if necessary.
As teenagers, the last thing we wanted in life was to have parents anywhere close to us! Not in front of us, at our side, or even behind us. But we knew they were there, ready to help, even if many times we did not want a relationship with them.
As adults, things changed even more. Now, our parents were no longer living with us. For some, they could still be reached by phone. For others, the parents had already departed this world and we were unable to see them or to speak with them. Yet, this does not mean there was an emotional distancing. It is simply a different kind of relationship. And now, in order to feel their presence, we had to actively access their teachings. We need to want to feel their presence. It is in your hands to do so.
The same, I propose, happens with miracles in our lives. When we were babies, they were all in our face. But as we matured, we need to actually make an effort to see them. And, as the Baal Shem Tov said, even when miracles are all around us, man takes his little hand and covers his eyes and sees nothing…
This is particularly relevant this time of the year, as Purim is approaching. The Book of Esther, the last book accepted into the Bible, canonized by the Sages of the Great Assembly, does not contain God in its text – not even once. And yet, as part of the liturgical changes for the Purim holiday, we add the Al Hanisim (For the Miracles) prayer to our Amidah (the Silent Prayers said three times during the day) and to Birkat Hamazon (the prayer after meals). We thank God for the miracles He did for us at that time. But wait – if God is not in the text, how can He have been responsible for the miracles? Here lies one of the most important lessons of Purim: many times in our lives, God may be hidden, it may seem to us as if He is not there. If we are looking only with our physical eyes, we might miss Him. But if we open our spiritual eyes, the eyes in our soul, we will notice how much God is present.
Why did Vashti refuse to go to the King’s party, which led her to be dethroned? How did Esther end up in the Palace? Why did the King allow Esther to speak with him even though he did not summon her as was the custom of those days? How were the Jews able to fight back (and win) the Persian forces? We can possibly find rational explanations for all these things. And yet, if we are open to seeing miracles, we can see that God was behind the scenes, orchestrating everything. God did not need to be seen or heard – His presence could be felt.
When Purim arrives, I too will be hiding behind a costume or a mask, and many people might not realize who I am. But I will be there, even if others do not recognize me. As I listen to the reading of the megillah, I will pay attention to the many times God is “behind a mask.” As I give a monetary gift to the poor or send mishloach manot through messengers, I will be reminded that not being “seen” does not mean I wasn’t there. And as I enjoy the Purim seudah, I will keep in mind the work of countless people who I do not see, who made it possible for the food to get to my table. Each of these Purim commandments will help reinforce the concept that hidden does not mean absent.
In our days, miracles may not be accompanied by thunder and lightning, nor by a loud blast of a shofar. They are most likely to be found in the smallest details, sometimes in nature, sometimes in our relationships. Miracles are experienced in what I called “the seemingly random coincidences of chance encounters” each day. (To see the full, video version of my ELI talk, go to https://elitalks.org/choosing-miracles-our-lives.)
I ask God to bless me with the ability to find the hidden, to see the miracles, to sense His presence – that in and of itself is a real miracle.