The Book of Esther is the only book in the Bible which does not mention God. After 3,000 years of Biblical history where God speaks to a cast of characters from Adam to Job, appears in dreams, works sensational miracles, reveals Himself at Sinai, and sends His prophets with explicit messages for the people and the kings of Israel, suddenly ... a story without God.
Or is it?
The Book of Esther takes place six decades after the destruction of the First Temple. This cataclysmic event changed the way that God relates to human beings. While the Temple brought the Divine Presence into explicit manifestation (witness the ten open miracles everyone could see there), with its destruction, the Divine Presence receded into a state of hiddenness.
The sages called this still prevailing modus operandi hester panim, meaning "hidden face." from the same root word as the name Esther. Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, can as well be translated: "the Scroll of Hiddenness."
If someone is hiding, it means he is there, but you can't see him. Nevertheless, certain signs, such as a bulge in the curtain, may hint at his whereabouts. The Book of Esther is full of coincidences, the right person "happening" to be in the right place at the right time, and dramatic, unexpected reversals of fortune. These are the bulges in the curtains that hint at the Divine orchestration of events. A witness can choose to attribute such serendipitous happenings to "luck" or to God.
Our challenge since the destruction of the First Temple is to find God hiding behind the curtain of history, to identify the Divine hand behind current events, and to recognize God's direction in the seemingly fortuitous occurrences of our own lives.
To give an example of a hidden miracle in my own family's life: My cousin Larry and his wife Ruth were married for several years when they realized that they could not have children. Longing for a family, they adopted a baby. Randi was a beautiful child, with blond hair and big blue eyes, but soon it became apparent that she suffered from a chronic breathing problem which required constant medical care, tests, and periodic chest X-rays.
Years passed. Meanwhile Larry and Ruth had adopted a second child. Then, much to their surprise and delight, Ruth discovered that she was pregnant. This precious pregnancy ended with the birth of Amy, a healthy and robust baby.
Ruth naturally took Amy with her wherever she went. When the baby was about a year old, Ruth took Randi for one of her regular chest X-rays. While they waited for Randi's turn, Ruth decided that as long as they were going through this whole rigmarole, she might as well also have the baby's chest X-rayed.
Amy's X-ray revealed that she had a rare and fatal cancer.
Because they caught it so early, before the baby was even symptomatic, they were able to effect a total cure. Almost three decades later, Amy is married and has her own baby.
Or take the case of a man who suddenly decided to take a new route home one night. As he walked past a clump of bushes, he heard the unmistakable sounds of a struggle. A woman was being attacked.
The man, who, by his own admission was neither brave nor athletic, feared for his own safety if he got involved. But hearing the girl's cries growing weaker, he resolved to try to help her. He ran behind the bushes, pulled the assailant off the woman, and wrestled with him until the attacker jumped up and ran away.
Only then did he realize that the girl was his own daughter.
The book Small Miracles by Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal, from which the preceding story comes, relates dozens of such occurrences. Although the book is subtitled, Extraordinary Coincidences from Everyday Life, the authors clearly believe that coincidences are far more than just chance or luck. As Yitta Halberstam asserts in her introduction, "To us, coincidences are ... vivid, striking, awe-inspiring examples of Divine Providence. They are acts of God."
Such camouflaged acts of God also take place on the national level.
THE SIX-DAY WAR
In May, 1967, Egyptian and Syrian troops massed on Israel's borders, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, and Egyptian President Gamel Abdal Nasser filled the airwaves with calls to drive the Jews into the sea. The mood in the 19-year-old-country of Israel was bleak. Facing five well-equipped, Soviet trained Arab armies, Israel's defeat was virtually a foregone conclusion. The black humor on everyone's lips that Spring was: "The last one out, don't forget to turn off the lights."
Everyone knows that instead of defeat, Israel achieved a stunning victory. On June 5 at 7:46 AM, Israeli planes destroyed the entire Egyptian air force on the ground. In six days, Israel tripled its territory, gaining the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and -- most precious of all -- the Old City and the Temple Mount.
The crucial strategy of destroying the Egyptian air force while their planes were still on the ground opened the way for the Israeli victory. The success of the maneuver is generally attributed to the Israeli planes flying below the tracking altitude of Egyptian radar. Many other factors, however, contributed to the success of the air strike and the subsequent battles. In fact, the coincidences and unlikely happenings at precisely the right time were so plentiful that, as we learn the details of the victory, the bulge in the curtain almost knocks us over.
For example, a few days before the war, the Commander of Egyptian forces in the Sinai was ordered to change commanders in most of his brigades, putting in charge officers who didn't know the terrain or their forces.
On the very morning of June 5th, three hours before the Israeli air strike, Egyptian intelligence did in fact issue a warning that an Israeli air attack would begin "within minutes." At that point, Egypt still had time to get its planes off the ground and save them. The message reached the command bunker in Cairo. An aide-de-camp signed a copy, but no one bothered to look for the Commander in Chief.
On the same morning of the attack, Egyptian officers stationed at the radar station in northern Jordan picked up the scrambling Israeli aircraft, and sent a red alert message to Cairo. The sergeant in the decoding room of the supreme command tried to decipher the message using the previous day's code and failed.
And where was Egypt's Commander in Chief? The night before, he and most of his top officers attended a party at an air force base in the northern delta area, at which a renowned belly dancer performed. Early the next morning, he took off for the Sinai, where he had ordered all his top commanders to assemble in order to meet a high-level Iraqi delegation. When the Israeli strike happened, not one senior officer was at his post.
The daily news in Israel is replete with miracles. The latest took place on February 8, 2001, when a car bomb packed with a whopping 15 kilos of explosives exploded in a narrow street in the densely populated religious neighborhood of Mea Shearim. According to eye witnesses, debris from the explosion soared 150 meters into the air. Yet no one was killed, and only one person was lightly injured.
Three minutes before the car bomb went off, a truck filled with propane gas drove past the parked car. Ten minutes before the explosion, which took place at the height of the local shopping period, a vegetable store directly adjacent to the car closed briefly so its owner could attend afternoon prayers. Normally, the wife of the vegetable store owner fills in for him during that time, but, when he telephoned his wife to come, she was at a critical point in her Shabbat cooking. By the time she turned off the stove and ran around the corner to open the store, it was a gutted out hole, without even a floor. Only 20 minutes after the bomb went off, dozens of indigent people were scheduled to line up on the adjacent sidewalk for their weekly charity food allocations.
The magnitude of the miracle was so obvious to the local residents that they broke forth in spontaneous singing and dancing and praises of God, which lasted for two hours.
The next day, signs went up on every tree and telephone pole enjoining people to recite Psalm 21 in gratitude for the miracle. And a "thanksgiving feast," required by Jewish law when one's life has been saved, was held on the very spot in the street where the bomb, which had been devised to kill and maim, had erupted in its futile blast.
RESPONDING TO A MIRACLE
Some years ago, I read a People Magazine article about a woman parachutist. On one of her jumps, her parachute failed to open. She pulled the cord for her back-up parachute, but that, too, was defective. As she free-fell thousands of feet toward the solid ground, she was sure she was going to die. Then she landed in a large puddle of water, unhurt.
The reporter asked her to what she attributed her improbable survival. She answered with conviction: "Luck."
Hidden miracles operate by the same economics as lactation. The more a baby nurses from her mother, the more milk the mother produces. Similarly, the more we respond appropriately to God's hidden miracles, the more miracles He bestows on us.
The converse is also true.
The appropriate response to a miracle is not to say, "Wow! That's amazing!" but rather, "Wow! God's amazing!"
The victory of the Six Day War was so dramatic and unexpected -- especially the regaining of the Temple Mount after 2,000 years -- that virtually everyone in Israel considered it a Divine miracle.
Even the avowedly secular Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan acknowledged God's hand in the triumph. Coming to the Western Wall the day after its liberation, Dayan, following the prevailing custom, wrote a message and stuffed it into a crevice between the ancient stones of the Wall. As soon as he left, of course, newspaper reporters extricated the note and read it. It contained a line from the Psalms:
From God this was. It is marvelous in our eyes.
But finding God in this long, dim era of hiddenness requires both recognizing His hand and remembering what you have seen. Only months after the Six Day War, people were already crediting the military prowess of the Israeli army for the astonishing victory. This attitude -- that the might and brilliance of the Israeli army had saved the day -- prevailed until the army's near-defeat during the Yom Kippur war, with its 2,000 casualties and Syrian tanks trampling the Galilee on their way to Haifa.
Miracles have to be not only acknowledged, but also responded to in ways which change the beneficiary of the miracle.
Judaism, a religion which abhors the nebulous, instructs us how to respond to miracles in concrete ways. These ways consist of both praising God publicly and thanking Him in kind: Just as He has been magnanimous to us, so we should be magnanimous to His children.
Thus, a person whose life has been saved should recite a blessing of thanksgiving known as Birkat HaGomel in the presence of a minyan. When a car bomb exploded recently in downtown Netanya during the height of the evening shopping hour, and no one was killed, the secular Mayor of Netanya enthused: "We should all say the blessing Birkat HaGomel."
Notice that Birkat HaGomel must be recited in public. The point is to publicize what you have experienced. The veil of hiddenness thins every time you reveal God's revelation to you.
That's why the Chanukah menorah must be lit where others can see it, either outside (as we do in Jerusalem), or in a window, or in a public room in front of others. The whole point of that mitzvah is "to publicize the miracle."
A person who has experienced a miraculous salvation, such as recovery from a life-threatening illness, is also enjoined to make a "feast of thanksgiving." This provides an occasion both to publicize the miracle and to express your gratitude to God, as well as an opportunity to feed other people, just as you have been fed from the largesse of God's kindness. Other appropriate responses to a miracle are to give charity or to upgrade one's service of God.
Now we can understand the four mitzvoth of Purim. We are told in the Book of Esther not to remember a tale of palace intrigue and Shakespearean-like reversals in ancient Persia, but to publicly acknowledge how God orchestrates events in this post-Temple era. We also make a feast, give charity to the poor, and send two foodstuffs to a friend. Since King Ahashverosh's kingdom encompassed virtually the entire Jewish population of that era, every Jew living today (except for converts) is descended from someone who was saved by the hidden miracles of Purim. The appropriate response is these four mitzvoth.
The Divine hides in order that we will look for Him ... and find Him. Once, as a child playing hide-and-seek, I came upon a great hiding place. I waited and waited for my friends to find me, as my titillation turned to impatience and finally to despair. When, after what seemed like an eternity, I emerged from my hiding place, I found that my friends had given up and gone on to a different game.
God does not despair of human beings. He stands behind the curtain waiting... and waiting... and waiting...