Letís assume that a Persian king, or anyone else for that matter, wants to destroy the Jewish people. What should we do in response?
On the one hand there are those who would seek salvation from destruction through prayer and study (or, depending on the bent of their pietism, through charity and righteous actions). On the other hand, there are those who would seek salvation from destruction through one combination or another of human strength and diplomacy.
Where would salvation lie? In God or in people?
An evening sky. Photo by: Ariel Shalit
An entire segment of Israeli society makes the claim that it is their faith in Godóand their study and prayers to God - that protect the Jewish people from harm, and not the soldiers of the countryís defense forces nor the diplomats of its foreign service.
This is a comforting thought. God, by definition, is perfect. On the other hand, even those people who are most sure of their abilities need to admit that they are merely maximizing their potential for success, but not guaranteeing it. A personís best plans include some element of chance or luck. A belief that God will direct history for us, and free us from the risk of failure, is thus very tempting.
On Purim, however, we are given one more example that pietism and faith in God is not sufficient, or perhaps even necessary, to salvation - what is essential is faith in the actions of people. The plain fact is that God is not even mentioned once in this story. We celebrate Mordechaiís foresight, Estherís bravery, and mostly, we celebrate our luck. Not for naught do we call Purim the holiday of the lots. There was a great element of risk and chance involved in the whole story.
Is God directing that luck? Perhaps, but thatís completely non-essential to the story. On the contrary, at Purim we are remembering a time when God didnít necessarily have a single convincing reason to intervene on behalf of the Jews in this story. In fact, neither Mordechai nor Esther are portrayed in any way that would make them appear pious. Not only do they bear the names of Babylonian gods - Marduk and Ishtar - Mordechai is willing to give his orphan relative, Esther, for whom he is the guardian, to a non-Jewish husband, Achashverosh, and to require her to live a life of deception. None of these are the types of actions that traditionally show loyalty to the God of Israel or would serve to inspire that God to intervene to save us.
Even the common belief that Mordechaiís refusal to bow to Haman was in an attempt to conform to Jewish law is mistaken. There is no law, and has never been a law, that forbids a Jew from bowing to his rulers. Mordechai clearly would have bowed to Achashverosh when necessary. His refusal to bow to Haman reflected a political gamble on his part, one that turned out to be incredibly risky.
Since God is not mentioned at all in the entire megilla, those who want to see God in the story have no choice but to admit that, if Godís hand is in the tale, then it is invisible. However, the image of an invisible hand is a powerful one, and within it is the potential to enable us to bridge the gap between those with merely a faith in God and those with merely a faith in man.
When Adam Smith adopted the image of an invisible hand to describe the basic mechanisms of social science, it was precisely to describe a divine order that operated through natural phenomena. As Mordechai and Esther decide what to do, they too must take calculated risks, utilizing their best understanding of the natural order, in an attempt to sway the odds in their favor. Mordechai, by proving his loyalty to Achashverosh, but challenging Haman for supremacy in Achashveroshís court, took some calculated risks with mixed results. Esther, meanwhile, risks her life in order to help sway Achashverosh to her peopleís side.
Both Mordechai and Esther have the faith necessary to allow them to take the brave, aggressive action necessary to confront their potential oppressors. They know that what they are doing is risky, but they also know that doing nothing is riskier. All they can do is tip the odds as much as possible in their favor - there is always an element of chance.
In this day and age, when we face our own potential oppressors, we too must take heed of these lessons - not merely praying to God, but having the faith necessary for us to take whatever steps might be necessary to maximize the odds of thwarting our enemiesí plans against us. After that, we hope and pray that the lots are on our side.
Rabbi Jeff Cymet is the spiritual leader of Tiferet ShalomóThe Masorti Congregation of Ramat Aviv. Prior to entering the rabbinate, Rabbi Cymet worked as an international corporate lawyer and served as Legal Advisor to the Israeli Minister of Justice.