Posted on March 23, 2011
by Aron Cohen, 2003 USY Rel/Ed VP, 5763
Perhaps the most conspicuous absence of God in the entire Bible is the lack of God’s name in the Megillah. Such an absence must not be an accident, but rather an important lesson for all of its readers.
The story of Purim, from a historical perspective, is almost completely secular. All of the action in the Purim story is between men and men-there is no direct interaction with God.
Not only does the story itself not explicitly include God; the mitzvot associated with Purim also focus on our relationships with those around us.
We are commanded to send Mishloach Manot-literally, “The sending of delicacies”-to those around us to create unity among the Jewish people, and as a simple act to reach out to those around us.
We are commanded on Purim to give gifts to the poor-while we send gifts to our friends and neighbors to build strength in the community, we also help to build the communities of those around us.
We are commanded to participate in the reading of the Megillah-an act that also brings together our community for an evening of festivities.
All of these actions stress our relations with those around us, stress building a strong community. Perhaps we can learn from this that while God’s presence in our lives is important-just as important are the people that surround us daily.
Abraham Joshua Heschel lends some insight on the matter in his book “God in Search of Man.” Heschel wrote:
“Religious thinking is in perpetual danger of giving primacy to concepts and dogmas and to forfeit the immediacy of insights, to forget that the known is but a reminder of God, that the dogma is a token of His will, the expression of the inexpressible at its minimum. Concepts, words must not become screens; they must be regarded as windows.”
Heschel teaches that although it is God’s presence in Jewish life that has sustained the Jewish people for so long, that has kept us going, the Torah cannot carry our actions. Rather, we must realize that the Torah is here to guide our actions, not to explicitly determine them. Heschel recognized that as many Jewish laws as there are, there are more possible situations that can arise in life.
In the story of Purim, Ester acts in a way that carries out God’s will. In today’s world, we are constantly being put into situations that require us to use our own judgment. While our Jewish values and morals guide us, our discretion is usually the overriding factor in our decision-making process. Although God can guide us, God can’t make all of our decisions for us.
Despite God’s name being absent from the Megillah, and God having no explicit actions in the Purim story, God still has a presence in the Megillah. In this way, the words of the Megillah do not hide God, rather, they enlighten us to the wonders of God’s less explicit actions.
However, the Torah reading this morning tells a slightly different story. This Shabbat, we began the book of Vayikra-a book in the Torah that contains nearly half the laws in the entire Torah, many of which are focused on a sacrificial system that has since been replaced by prayer.
This morning’s reading contains painstaking detail outlining every last nook and cranny of the sacrificial system. Unlike the Purim story, we are given every detail imaginable directly from God, and with so much detail, it is hard to imagine that there is any room for interpretation.
So we have two sides of the same coin. The Megillah teaches us that we can function without God’s direct presence, and that we don’t need God to dictate each step we take. But parshat Vayikra outlines an incredibly intricate system that explicitly dictates our actions in every way. The two are, outwardly, opposites.
However, the two seemingly contradictory messages together reveal a deeper understanding of these two alternating ideas.
Heschel taught, “A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times.” We must understand that our relationship with God is intimately connected to our relationship with other people, and that our relationships with other people are intimately connected to our relationship with God.
,Heschel taught, “A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times.” We must understand that our relationship with God is intimately connected to our relationship with other people, and that our relationships with other people are intimately connected to our relationship with God.
While it seems sometimes that ritual mitzvot are far removed from our relationships with people, they are really a lot closer than we think. So many ritual mitzvot are in place with the purpose of creating a foundation of holiness our lives, which can then transfer over to our interactions with people.
In two weeks, we read from Parshat Shemini, which outlines many specific requirements of Kashrut-which can be seen as the quintessential ritual mitzvah. Aside from teaching us to have reverence for the lives of the animals that we kill, kashrut takes something completely mundane, completely ordinary and makes it holy. Through a simple act, we are elevating an earthly act to a holy one.
It is this basis of holiness off of which we can base all of our actions, so that when we interact with other people, we have a basis to make all of our actions holy. This foundation of holiness is, in fact, what allows to act with our own discretion. By building our lives around actions specifically sanctioned by God, we are better equipped to handle daily situations as they arise in our lives, and our personal discretion is more likely to be in line with that of God’s will.
As Heschel wrote, “Concepts, words must not become screens; they must be regarded as windows.” Through ritual observances, God can help guide us in the decisions for which there are no laws. God can lead us in he right direction, but it’s up to us to make sure that all of our actions are actions that we can be proud of.