The miracle of Purim is one of the watershed events of Jewish history. The redemption from Haman’s threatened holocaust set the stage for the return from the Babylonian exile and the construction of the Second Temple.
GOD DONS A DISGUISE
At the conclusion of the 70 years of the Babylonian exile, God displayed His Presence in the world once again. But instead of reappearing openly, He elected to stage His comeback wearing a disguise. He performed the miracle of the Purim story clothed in the costume of Nature, and has so far elected not to emerge from behind this disguise. One of the reasons behind the custom to dress up on Purim is to acknowledge the change in the way God relates to us.
The First Temple era was distinguished by varied forms of the clear revelation of God’s Presence -- the Presence of the Shechina visible in the Temple, direct communication with God through the medium of prophecy, the frequency of undisguised miracles. But all these demonstrations of the Divine Presence dwelling among us were withdrawn with its destruction. None of the events of the Esther story are miraculous per se. The hand of God can be detected only indirectly, in the incredibly unlikely combination of circumstances and events that make up the Esther Story.
There is a special Hebrew term to describe the sort of miracle the Purim story represents: nes nistar, a term that translates literally as "concealed miracle". This phenomenon requires some understanding. Isn’t a concealed miracle a contradiction in terms? If it were so well concealed that we could not see it, we would never call it a miracle; it is only because the miracle is clumsily hidden that we are able to penetrate behind the mask and perceive it with our feeble human intelligence.
But if God doesn’t wish to hide His intervention, why not choose an openly miraculous method to intervene? If He allows us to catch Him hiding, why does He bother with the disguise? Is He going to a masked ball or something?
REASON TO HIDE
According to Rabbi Dessler, [Purim essay, Michtav Me’eliyahu 2] we have to focus on emotion rather than reason to find the answer. God put on His costume to enable us to have a relationship with Him based on love rather than fear; to enable us to experience the joy of being in His Presence instead of just the awe.
God's hiding His face totally transformed the emotional dynamics of our relationship with Him.
The policy of keeping his Presence "hidden" that God adopted in the Purim story totally transformed the emotional dynamics of our relationship with Him. Whereas in the First Temple era the relationship was mind-driven, ever since the Purim redemption it has been love-driven.
Let us unravel this concept by starting at the very beginning -- our original encounter with God at Sinai.
This encounter is described in the following terms:
Moses brought the people forth from the camp toward God, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. (Exodus 19,17) The Talmud interprets: God suspended Mt. Sinai over the Jewish camp and declared, "If you accept the Torah well and good; but if not, I will drop the mountain on you and bury you all!" [Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a]
The Maharal, a great 15th Century philosopher, informs us that this passage is not as menacing as it seems at first glance. It means to convey the following idea. People who perceive reality as clearly as the Jewish people who stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai must have automatically come to the realization that accepting the Torah is as necessary to life as breathing or eating. You cannot live without the Torah in precisely the same fashion as you cannot live without breathing or eating.
The metaphor of the suspended mountain is offered to illustrate the degree of clarity and is not to be taken literally. By revealing Himself to the Jewish people so openly, God raised them to a level of intellectual clarity that is the equivalent of being clobbered over the head by the realization that continued existence depends entirely on God’s constant renewal of His input into creation.
We all dream of achieving perfect clarity about what the world is really about but we tend to ignore the fact that such clarity has a powerful downside, especially regarding relationships. Clarity eliminates choice and places the relationship with God on a foundation of compulsion and fear.
LIVING WITHOUT GOD
A common device in romantic literature is to have the hero or heroine describe the intensity of their love with the declaration that they cannot possibly live without the object of their passion. While none of us accepts this as being true in a literal sense, most of us relate to this declamation on some level. But if, in fact, I were actually dependant for survival on my beloved, wouldn’t this tend to cool my ardor? Doesn’t this mean in fact that I am totally stuck? How awful!
The same feeling can be quite inspiring and wonderful when it is freely chosen, and anxiety producing and confining when it is compelled. When God overwhelms us with the clear vision of necessity that accompanies the revelation of His Presence, we are bound to have some mixed feelings. Any feelings of love and joy that we may experience are somewhat offset by a desire to escape the feeling of being smothered by the tight embrace of His overwhelming Presence. The First Temple era was permeated by the pernicious practice of idol worship for no other reason.
The point of hiding the miracle is not to make it difficult to find God; it is to create the necessity to search for Him.
Hidden miracles inspire different feelings entirely. God demonstrates His love and concern by serving up a miraculous redemption, but He does it from behind the scenes precisely to make it clear that He does not wish to overwhelm us.
The point of hiding the miracle is not to make it difficult to find God; the point is to create the necessity to search for Him. The need to search, no matter how superficial, removes the necessity component from the relationship with Him.
With the elimination of the necessity component, the appreciation of the fact that we cannot live without Him inspires love instead of terror. The realization that He takes the trouble to look after us, while carefully avoiding the slightest open display of His immense power, gives us the feeling of being treasured and important and inspires feelings of love and joy.
LOVE, TRUST and AMALEK
Feelings of love can never run deeper than the level of trust, and the enemy of trust is doubt.
There is a deeper aspect to all this. Love and trust must always go hand in hand. Not only does love require trust, the levels must exactly correspond. Feelings of love can never run deeper than the level of trust we have in the beloved. The relationship with God is no exception. The enemy of trust is doubt. Maintaining the intensity of our emotional relationship with God always involves overcoming doubt.
The commentators point to the correspondence of the numerical value of the Hebrew word "safek," which means doubt, and the word "Amalek," the archenemy, the nation of Haman’s ancestors. Both words add up to 240. Each time the Jewish people managed to erect a structure to permanently house the Divine Presence it followed a confrontation with Amalek.
Joshua confronted Amalek in the desert before the encounter at Sinai and the erection of the Tabernacle; Saul and David both fought against the Amalekites before the erection of the First Temple; and Mordechai and Esther led a Jewish campaign against the Amalakite Haman and his allies before the building of the Second Temple.
Temples not only require a high degree of certainty concerning God’s existence, they are also a testimony to, and an expression of, the powerful bond of love joining God and Israel together. A Temple is an existential embodiment of the feeling of not being able to live without you.
Amalek’s spiritual might lies in his power to inspire doubt. The confrontation with Amalek in the desert is described by the Hebrew phrase "asher karcha bedarech"[Deut. 25,18], "he happened upon you on the way;" the word "karcha" means chance.
Haman describes his misfortunes as "asher karahu"[Scroll of Esther, 6:13], as things that happened to him by chance. The very name of the holiday Purim comes from the word "Pur," which means the drawing of lots. Chance is the first cousin of doubt. It means there is no design in the world, no one is orchestrating events, everything happens by chance and God cannot be trusted.
But there is an emotional aspect to doubt as well. Even when our belief in God is firm and unshakable, the worm of doubt can still burrow and destroy the emotional quality of our relationship with Him.
LOVE and DOUBT
In this context there are three distinct areas that are open to doubt. The first source of doubt is whether we count for anything at all in God’s eyes or whether He is merely executing His own agenda.
We are all familiar with the phenomenon of negative attention seekers. Such people are so lacking in self- esteem that they firmly believe they have nothing positive to contribute that could possibly merit the honest appreciation of others. They therefore conclude that they must be harmful and destructive in order to be noticed. Amalek’s first confrontation with Joshua fits this paradigm perfectly; it is described as suicidal.
The Midrash explains it in terms of the metaphor of the idiot who jumps into the steaming cauldron. He is certain that he will be burnt, but he also knows that he will cool off the water in the process so that the next person will survive the immersion.
When Israel left Egypt, the halo of invincibility surrounding the Jewish people was so shiningly bright that they were akin to the steaming cauldron of the metaphor; no nation could presume to oppose them. This sense of helplessness inspired in Amalek a feeling of impotence and prompted him into the ultimate act of negative attention grabbing.
Amalek is the enemy without. The need to fight him is evidence of the fact that there is a moral struggle raging within the hearts of the Jewish people. Translating this into emotional terms, the Jews also felt puny and insignificant and totally unable to assert themselves in the face of the overwhelming clarity of God’s Presence.
How can God possibly love me when He is so powerful and I am so puny?
Joshua’s war against Amalek is the externalization of the gnawing self-doubt caused by feelings of insignificance. How can God possibly love me when He is so powerful and I am so puny? Overcoming this doubt and learning to trust in God’s love gave us the emotional clarity and self-confidence to construct the Tabernacle.
IS IT INFATUATION?
The apex of Saul’s confrontation with Amalek centers on the sparing of the Amalakite King Agog’s life. The prophet Samuel attributes the sin to a feeling of inadequacy on the part of Saul. "Though you may be small in your own eyes, you are the head of the tribes of Israel…" (1 Samuel, 15:17) In other words, Saul saw no reason for God to prefer him to Agog; in Saul’s eyes he was no more worthy of God’s preference than Agog, Haman’s progenitor. He therefore did not find the moral strength in himself to kill Agog out of hand. At the moment of truth, he was infected by a loss of confidence in his own moral worthiness and was unable to carry out the deed.
On a national scale this amounts to the feeling of "What can God possibly see in us?" The feeling of "What can my beloved possibly see in me?" can undermine the most loving of relationships. The feeling of distinction between ourselves and the nations and our worthiness of God’s favor is a necessary element of being able to enjoy the basking in His Presence the First Temple era represents.
Once again the war with Amalek was the externalization of this inner self-doubt concerning the reliability of God’s love; if we are not more worthy than other nations, God is bound to shake off His infatuation with us and abandon us. Overcoming this doubt and achieving emotional clarity concerning God’s love for us allowed us to construct the first Temple.
But the ultimate test of love is surely to overcome the sense of being abandoned. When the beloved ceases to shower the attention to which his beloved has become accustomed, it is usually taken as a signal that his love has died. In line with this idea, the Jewish people came to the prophet Ezekiel in the exile that followed the destruction of the First Temple and told him, "When a husband divorces his wife….what attachment is there still between them?" (Talmud, Sanhedrin, 105a)
Haman also stressed this theme of abandonment in recommending the destruction of the Jewish people to Ahasuerus. "There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. (Esther 3:8)" In Hebrew, the phrase "there is" is "yeshna," which can also be read "to sleep." The Midrash comments on the double entendre: Haman said to Ahasuerus, "the One about whom it is written Hear O Israel: Hashem is our God, Hashem the One and Only (Deut. 6:4) is asleep, indifferent to the fate of His people."
God answered him, "I am never asleep" [when it comes to protecting My people], as it is written, "Behold, He neither slumbers or sleeps, the guardian of Israel. (Psalms, 121:3)[Esther Raba, 7]
The battle against Haman and Ahasuerus is the externalization of the struggle with this final doubt, the fear that love has died. The resolution of this doubt and the restoration of the sense of security and trust in God in the hearts of the Jewish people was the emotional foundation of the Second Temple. God did not abandon us after all; He still watches over us and protects us even in our exile.
We need to feel the sheer joy of being God’s beloved.
We are now nearing the End of Days and we are once again afflicted with all these doubts. Perhaps God has finally abandoned us after all. How could He have stood by and watched our suffering and persecution for the past 2000 years? How can He stand by and watch the innocent remnant being systematically terrorized? We have finally begun the process of the ingathering of the exiles. We are returning, but where is He?
As we prepare for the festival of Purim we long to catch a glimpse of His loving face behind the curtain once again. Too many of our people have abandoned the struggle with their doubt entirely, and have totally lost their trust in God’s love. We need one of those "hidden miracles" to restore our trust desperately. We need to feel the sheer joy of being God’s beloved.