Our Sages asked a strange question in the Talmud: “Where do we find a hint in the Torah to the Book of Esther?” The Talmud (Chullin 39b) answers with the words, v’anochi haster astir panai, “I will hide my face on that day.” God’s most fearful warning had always been that there would come a time when there would be hester panim, the concealed face of God, when it would look as if, God forbid, He has stopped communicating with us.
That is how the Sages found a hint of Esther. We know that Esther is one of the only two books in Tanach which don’t contain the name of God, the other one being The Song of Songs. But where The Song of Songs is a book about God’s love for us, Esther is a fearful book because it records the moment when it was resolved “to destroy, to slay, and to exterminate all Jews, young and old, children and women, in a single day,” when the first warrant for genocide against the Jewish people was issued.
Purim is the only festival in the Jewish year set entirely in Exile. Every other festival is either based on an event that happened in Israel or on the journey toward Israel. Purim alone is set in the place of hester panim, when we are out of Israel and where it is harder to feel the presence of God.
Yet there is one line in the Megillat Esther that cuts through me like a knife and represents the most powerful statement in Judaism I know that God has not abandoned us.
Wherever we are, God is asking us to realize why He put us here, with these gifts, at this time, with these dangers, in this place.
Towards the end of the fourth chapter, we find Esther telling her uncle Mordechai about all the problems there might be in interceding with King Achashverosh regarding the fate of the Jewish people. Mordechai listens and then responds to her with the famous words, “If you are silent and you do nothing at this time somebody else will save the Jewish people. But who knows, was it not for just this moment that you became a Queen, with access to King Achashverosh in the royal palace?”
This, for me, is the ultimate statement of hashgacha pratit, Divine providence, that wherever we are, God is asking us to realize why He put us here, with these gifts, at this time, with these dangers, in this place. Hashgacha pratit is our fundamental belief that God never abandons us, that He puts us here with something to do. Even in the worst hiding of God, if you listen hard enough, you can hear Him calling to us as individuals, saying “Was is not for this very challenge that you are here in this place at this time?”
That is the essence of the first word of the third book of Torah – Vayikra, “And God called”. When you look in a Torah you will notice the word is written with a very small Aleph at the end. Commenting on this, Rashi draws a distinction between the phrases Vayikra el Moshe, “And He [God] called to Moses” and Vayikar el Bilam “And He [God] appeared to Bilam”. The Hebrew language, says Rashi, has two words that sound the same, but are in fact completely different, even opposite, mikra and mikreh. Mikreh is used to describe something that happens accidentally, that involves no Divine providence. Mikra, on the other hand, is used to describe a calling from God, specific to you with a particular task involved.
Why, then, is the Aleph – a letter which makes no sound – written small? To teach us that sometimes it can be very hard to hear God’s call. It might even be a silent call. In Hebrew, this is a known as kol demama daka, a voice you can only hear if you are listening. Even in the worst times of darkness, God is always calling on us to do something.
One of my great heroes was a man called Victor Frankl. He was a psychotherapist actually working with university students in Vienna and was taken to Auschwitz during the Second World War. There never was in all history greater time of God being hidden than in the Holocaust. Yet Victor Frankl was a man of faith, and he knew God was calling on him to do something even there, even at the gates of Hell itself.
He asked himself, what does God want of me, a psychotherapist, in the middle of Auschwitz? He came to the answer, God wants me to give my fellow prisoners, my fellow Jews, a will to live, because only if they have that will, will they have the strength to survive. So he went around to each prisoner that he thought was about to fall into despair, and gave them a role in life, one they had yet to fulfil. This sense of renewed purpose helped force these men, women and children to stay alive, survive Auschwitz, be liberated and then go and do their calling. That is what Victor Frankl heard, even in Auschwitz, a Vayikra, a call, with a tiny Aleph.
Eddie Jacobson and Harry S. Truman
There is another story of a man named Eddie Jacobson. Eddie was an ordinary Jewish guy from the Lower East Side of New York. When Eddie was a child, his parents moved to Kansas City and there he met a child his own age. Soon they became close school friends, did military service together during the First World War, and decided that when the war was over they would go into business together. They set up a clothing store in Kansas City, but the business was not a great success and soon they drifted apart. Eddie Jacobson went on being a travelling salesman selling clothes. His friend, Harry S. Truman, took a slightly different route and landed up as president of the United States.
In 1947-48, the Jews of the world needed the support of the United States of America for the state of Israel to be proclaimed and recognized. The State Department was against it and advised the president not to support the creation of the state of Israel. Jews and Jewish organizations tried their utmost to see the president in the White House, and every single attempt was refused. Even the leader of the Zionist movement, Chaim Weizmann, the man who would become the first president of the State of Israel, was refused a meeting.
As time became desperate, somebody remembered that Harry S. Truman had a childhood friend called Eddie Jacobson. So they reached out to Eddie and asked if he could get the president of the United States to meet with Chaim Weizmann. Eddie phoned up President Truman and said he had to come and see him. Truman’s officials tried to block the meeting, but Truman said, “This is my old friend, Eddie, from school, Eddie, from the Army, Eddie, from our shop together! How can I not see this man?”
When Eddie arrived at the White House, Truman said, “Eddie, you can talk to me about anything, except Israel.”
“Okay”, said Eddie and he stood in the Oval Office, in front of the president of the United States, and began to cry.
“Eddie, why are you crying?” asked the president.
Eddie pointed to a marble statue in the room and said. “Who is that, Harry?”
“That’s my hero, Andrew Jackson,” Truman replied.
“You really admire this man?” asked Eddie.
“And he had an influence over you?”
“Yes” said Truman.
Then, said Eddie, “I have a hero. His name is Chaim Weizmann. Harry, for my sake, see this man.”
Harry looked at Eddie and he knew that he couldn’t say no to his old friend. That is how Chaim Weizmann got to see president Harry S. Truman, and that is how America voted in favor of the creation of the State of Israel. If they had not voted, Israel would not have been brought into being. What’s more, Harry S. Truman made the United States the first country in the world to recognize this State when David Ben Gurion pronounced it.
I don’t know how God writes the script of history, but if it can happen to Eddie Jacobson it can happen to any one of us. “Who knows, was it not for just this moment that you became a Queen, with access to the royal palace?” God is calling on each of us, saying there is a reason why we are here, because He has something for us to do, something that only we can do.
We can hear God’s voice even when He appears hidden, even when the call, Vayikra, is written with a very small Aleph that you can hardly see and hardly hear.
Did Esther know that one day, the entire future of the Jewish people will rest with her?
We never know when an act of ours will have consequences. Did Esther, growing up with Mordechai, know that one day, the entire future of the Jewish people will rest with her? You never know what significance one friendship or one little moment might have for you and for somebody else that might just change the world.
We must always ask ourselves, what does God want of me in this place, at this time? Because there is always something God wants of us, and we don’t have to be anyone special to have a sacred task. We can just be a Jewish woman called Esther, or a Jewish man called Eddie, and yet, somehow or another, our acts might have consequences that we cannot even begin to imagine. Even though you may feel sometimes that this is a world and an age in which there is hester panim, where you look for God and you can’t find him, He is still saying to us “Was it not for this moment that I placed you here on Earth?”
When God calls, may each of us have the courage to say to “Hineini, here I am, God, tell me what to do and I will do it.” May we go out into the world, walking tall as Jews, walking unafraid as Jews, and may we be true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith. May we hear the call of God and answer it. May we all bring blessing to the world.
Chag Purim Sameach!