by Jacob Cytryn, Executive Director
Megillat Esther makes a powerful argument that the Judaism represented by Mordechai and Esther’s actions is one of human initiative, of human uncertainty, and ultimately of human triumph. For the megillah is the only book in the TaNaCh (Hebrew Bible) in which God is not a character; God’s name does not appear a single time. The heroes are people who are not, like the rest of those in the TaNaCh, in dialogue with, appointed by, inspired by, or connected to miracles ascribed to God.
Rabbinic tradition picks up on this dynamic in an oft-quoted Talmudic passage which, throughout the decades, has been taught over and over again at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. In the Talmud (B. Shabbat 88a), the Rabbis imagine that, before giving the Ten Commandments, God held Mount Sinai over the Israelites and threatened to drop it on them if they were not prepared to accept their side of the bilateral covenant: following the mitzvot (commandments). Thus the nation responds “na’aseh v’nishma” – “we will do, and we will heed” (Exodus 24:7). They make a commitment to action before even knowing what they are agreeing to do. Per this reading, if the covenant was accepted under duress, then when do the Jewish people enter into an agreement with God of their own volition? The Rabbis answer that this happened only in the period of the Purim story, using a quotation from the end of Megillat Esther: “The Jews undertook and irrevocably obligated themselves …” (Esther 9:27). It is only in this story in which God does not figure do we fully accept our part in a dynamic relationship with the Divine.
For me, the paralyzing fear of last spring, the sense of helplessness and pain, has transitioned into something else. Though the virus will not disappear anytime soon, nor will the ragged tears in the racial and political threads of our social fabric, nor the lack of faith in leadership and in the stuck political system that too often feels incapable of doing anything, I see many signs of hope and of God’s hand in the actions of people. While COVID-19 is the product of the still-mysterious natural world that is one of the most popular ways of understanding God’s role in our universe, the responses to the pandemic are the results of human resilience, bravery, and brilliance. Creating vaccines, caring for the sick, developing medical interventions; educating our children, providing care and support, continuing the required aspects of our community; organizing communities, advocating for justice, selflessly serving the public good. All of these represent God acting through a version of the Purim story.
As we move into the second year of the pandemic, exhausted and angry about its consequences for our lives, in mourning for everyone and everything we have lost, let us also remember the good. Like the Purim story, let us acknowledge and make Divine miracles with our human hands.