Tonight we will read Megillat Esther, the scroll or book of Esther, which tells the story of Purim. Before the Hazzan begins reading, he will recite a blessing that thanks God “who did miracles for our ancestors in those days.”
But what miracles did God do at Purim? Read the whole megillah – a complete book of the Bible – and turn it this way and that, and you will not find a single reference to God or to miracles. God does not appear once in the entire story. God is notably absent from the explicit telling of the story. It’s a very human story, with human oppressors, human plotting, human counter-plotting, and humans as the agents of salvation. So where’s the miracle? And not only where is the miracle, but why is God so seemingly absent from the story?
The absence of God symbolizes the maturing of the Jewish people’s relationship with God, which is similar to the relationship between a parent and a child.
When the child is young, she’s 100% dependent on her parents, who provide food, shelter, and clothing – everything she needs to survive. As any parent can tell you, being the parent of small child is a very active job. Similarly, in the opening chapters of Genesis, God is a very active God: creating the world, providing food, shelter, and clothing for Adam and Eve. Later, God provides for manna and water for the Israelites wandering in the dessert.
But as a child matures, the parent focuses on educating the child so that she will be able to provide for herself and function as a happy, productive member of society. Similarly, in the book of Exodus, God gives us the instruction manual: the Torah, the education we need to function as happy, productive members of both Jewish society and the world at large.
Eventually, a parent sends the child off to college or into the world of work, and the relationship changes. The child is more responsible for herself. The parent may still give advice (as after the giving of the Torah God continued to give us advice through the prophets), but the nature of the relationship changes.
When the child is fully an adult the parent may seem to withdraw from the picture. However, even though the adult child is fully responsible for herself, the parent never stops caring. Similarly, God’s absence in the book of Esther is a way of God saying “you’ve made it.” You’re an adult. You’re going to have to get yourself out of the messes you find yourself in. But God is still present behind the scenes, rooting for us to succeed, and helping us find the resources within ourselves.
If we look at all the different places where things could have gone wrong in the Purim story, it’s a miracle that Esther and Mordecai were able to prevail over the forces of evil. What are the places in the Purim story where miracles happened?
How about Esther being selected to be queen? The Megillah tells us that the king sought out a new bride from all the provinces – lots of competition! It’s probably a one in a million chance that Esther – the person who would care about the Jews, the person who would have the strength and courage to save the Jews – is the one who would be chosen. Coincidence?
Mordecai “just happened” to be in the right place at the right time to hear about the conspiracy against the king – a minor miracle which not only resulted in the king’s life being spared, but in Mordecai storing up some much needed royal good will which would come in very handy later on. The Talmud says there was a Jew there to hear Bigthan and Teresh’s conversation in order that a miracle could be done for the Jews.
After Haman had his evil decree placed upon the Jews, Esther had to somehow get to the king; but anyone who came into king’s presence without invitation risked being killed if the king did not extend his golden scepter to them.
Now Esther was the queen, so you might not think it so miraculous that it was OK for her to come into the king’s presence without an invitation, but Ahashveros was a very particular king. The Talmud elaborates on the story and says “[when the king] lifted up his eyes and saw Esther standing in front of him he was furiously angry because she had broken his law and come before him without being called. Then Esther lifted up her eyes and saw the king’s face, and behold his eyes were flashing like fire with the wrath which was in his heart. And when the queen perceived how angry the king was, she was overcome and her heart sank and she placed her head on the maiden who was supporting her right hand. But our God saw and had mercy on His people, and He took note of the distress of the orphan who trusted in Him and He gave her grace in the eyes of the king and invested her with new beauty and new charm.” God did a miracle for Esther.
Another Midrash says that the king’s scepter miraculously stretched and reached out and touched Esther, granting her immunity from the king’s wrath.
Once she had the king’s attention, she had to do something with it. The Megillah tells us Esther asked the king and Haman to come to a banquet. One of the rabbis in the Talmud says that Esther’s purpose in inviting the king and Haman to a banquet was that she was hoping God would do a miracle for them.
After the banquet the king couldn’t sleep…and when he woke up he just happened to have read to him the account of how Mordecai saved his life. Just a couple of coincidences? Or a behind the scenes miracle?
When Esther approached the king about the plight of her people, the king could easily have chosen to stick by his dedicated advisor Haman. Was it a miracle he chose to prefer Esther? Was it a miracle that Haman happened to be on Esther’s couch pleading when the king walked in, making it look like Haman had designs on Esther?
Is it a miracle that the Jews managed to kill 75,000 of their enemies – apparently without suffering any casualties on the Jewish side? Which, of course, is not a part of the Purim story we usually emphasize, but it’s in there!
God’s hiddeness in the story of Esther is alluded to in her very name. The rabbis comment on how “Esther” sounds like hester, which means “hidden.” The story of Purim is full of the presence of God and miracles – it’s just that they are “hidden.”
Just as the parallel between the development of the Jewish people’s relationship with God and the relationship of a parent to a child shows a maturing of our relationship with God, the rabbis’ ability to see the miracles in the Purim story, even without what we would think of as an obvious “miracle” is a maturing in our faith. A mature person of faith can see miracles all around us.
I just got back from Israel yesterday – I was only there for four days. Yet more than once I was struck with a feeling of what a miracle it is to be able to spend time in a Jewish state—a Jewish state that is vital and thriving. Time and time again Israel’s existence has been threatened, from 1948 to 1956 to 1967 to 1973 to Intifadas one and two, and yet Israel survives. A friend who served in the Israeli military during the 1967 war says as far as he is concerned it’s an open miracle that Israel prevailed in that war.
we are also cautioned by the Talmud NOT to rely on miracles. After 1967 Israel perhaps was feeling a little cocky, like they could take on the world. The near disaster of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, not to mention the recent Lebanon war, serve as a blast of reality and remind the Israelis that it’s not a good idea to count on miracles to keep safe.
While being able to spot the hidden miracles – like the ones in the Purim story, or the ones that happened in 1967, may be a sign of a mature faith, an even greater level of maturity in our faith comes when we can recognize the miracles not only in big events like a war, but even in the little events that happen every day. One of my favorite parts of the Amidah is in the modim section, when we praise God for the miracles that are with us daily, for the wonders we see morning, noon, and night. Appreciating the miracles of life, the miracles of health, the miracles of well-being is a mark of a mature spirituality.
May God open our eyes to the miracles all around us, and may we each contribute in our own way to the miracles needed in making the world a better place,