The book of Esther, which we read for Purim (March 19-20 this year), reflects the topsy-turvy world of exile. Israel’s destiny is governed by an emperor who is more klutz than king, threatened by a villain who is equally laughable, and saved through the charms of an assimilated Jewish babe who just happens to be queen. All these quirks lead the sages to ask, where is Esther mentioned in Torah? The answer: in the phrase, “I will surely hide my face (haster astiyr panai) on that day” (Dt. 31:18).
Esther’s name reminds us of hester panim, the hiding of God’s face, and her story unfolds at a time when God seems hidden. As the old gospel song goes, “he may be late, but he’s always right on time.” Or you might put it; God’s gonna be right on time, but he hasn’t showed up yet, so what do we do in the meantime?
Before we consider Esther’s response to that question, let’s look at what not to do. For this lesson, we backtrack a few weeks in our Torah readings to the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32:1ff).
Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make us Elohim, gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
The people are falling apart because Moses is delayed. Rashi comments that Moses promised to be back “at the end of forty days.” The people started counting as soon as Moses took off, but Moses waited until the first full day of his absence to start his count. Hence, he returned a day late according to the people’s calculation. During that brief delay, they made their famous golden calf.
Moses’ delay is different from God’s delay, of course, but not so different. Moses is the visible representative of God, the one through whom God had always arrived on the scene. Now that “we don’t know what has become of Moses,” it’s like God himself not showing up. The Israelites respond in fear and build a model of Elohim, of God, to give them courage in Moses’ absence.
Fear tempts us in two opposite but equally fruitless directions; we either freeze and do nothing, or panic and do something crazy, an option often presented as, “Don’t just stand there; do something!” As is often the case, the Israelites’ something is exactly the wrong thing, even though they put their hearts into it. They give money, the gold earrings of entire families. They give religious devotion in the form of burnt offerings and peace offerings. They give their hearts and souls to the calf, as they “sat to eat and drink and got up to sport.” And in the end, Moses grinds it all into dust and makes them drink it.
Fear narrows our perspective. The Israelites focus their attention on the human means, which often change, rather than on the divine source, which never changes. They call Moses “the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt.” This was true as far as it went, but God is constantly reminding the people that he is the real deliverer, as the first of the Ten Words declares: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
Since God, not Moses, is the deliverer, the Israelites should be able to handle Moses’ absence. Instead they violate the very next statementin the Ten Words: “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…” They forget that Adonai is their deliverer and fall right into idolatry.
This background helps us see what Esther did right. She too is faced with God’s delay. Her hubby the king issues an irreversible decree that all the Jews in his empire are to be destroyed. There is no divine intervention, no divine spokesman in the person of prophet or sage, only cousin Mordecai who tells Esther that she’s gotta do something. And Esther does the right something, which saves her people.
First, Esther doesn’t give in to fear. It’s not hard to imagine the queen in such a story holed up in her chambers, waiting for someone else, especially a male someone else, to do something. Look at what happened to Esther’s predecessor, Vashti, when she took decisive action. The king had ordered her to appear before his drunken dinner guests “wearing the royal crown”—according to the Midrash, wearing nothing but the royal crown—to “show off her beauty” (Esther 1:11). When she took the bold step of refusing to appear, she was deposed and—again according to the Midrash—put to death.
Esther recognizes this danger but is not intimidated. She avoids the extremes of freezing and panic. Instead, she organizes three days of prayer and fasting to undergird the step she must take. “And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!” (4:16).
Second, Esther does what she can do. How many times do we miss our best chance to respond effectively because we are busy wondering why God is absent? Esther leaves that question to others. She does not fret that God isn’t showing up, but takes the action that her position and standing allow her to take. As she does, God’s presence in the story becomes evident, even though He remains hidden.
Likewise, we’ll find that when we do what we can do, even though we feel powerless, Messiah’s power will be at work in us. As Rav Shaul claimed, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). God may be delayed, hidden by circumstances and events, but his presence becomes evident as we do what we are assigned to do.
Finally, Esther maintains a broad focus. Fear narrows our focus, but Esther sees that, even though God is hiding his face, the issue is centered on him and his whole plan for humankind, beginning with Israel.
Esther acts on behalf of all Israel and we have similar opportunities today. Anti-Semitism, especially in the current form of anti-Zionism, is on the rise everywhere. It’s bizarre that in today’s climate of political correctness it’s becoming more and more acceptable, especially within intellectual and academic circles, to be anti-Jewish. The current unrest in the Middle East is unlikely to improve matters. But this is not a time for discouragement, which is after all just a low-grade and chronic form of fear. Instead, it’s time to follow Esther’s lead and stand up for Israel, speaking, praying, maybe even agitating a bit for the Jewish people. I’m planning to help staff an Israel table at UNM for diversity day next week. I’m also going shopping on BIG day, March 30–that’s Buy Israeli Goods (http://www.standwithus.com/app/inews/view_n.asp?ID=1787 ). And of course on the fast of Esther, March 17, we’re praying against the Iranian threat in the Middle East and for Israel’s deliverance, both short-term and long-term.
Esther overcomes her fears to stand up for the whole house of Israel. And we know from the rest of Scripture that it is not just all Israel, but all humanity that is at stake. Let’s follow Esther’s lead in renouncing fear and seeking God’s face, even though it may seem hidden, during these critical times.
(Adapted from a piece originally written for Purim 5763)