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The Queen You Thought You Knew
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Does any of it maybe seem a tad bit heretical?
One of the things many of us learn as kids is that Purim is the holiday where God works behind the scenes. The name of God is never mentioned, but He’s still there, He’s hidden in the Megillah – He’s pulling the levers of history.
But we might ask: If the theory we’ve just advanced is true, does it stand in opposition to that view? We have seen Esther act with a great deal of strategy. She’s clever, she plays her hand with utmost skill. If that’s the case, we might wonder, where is God? Have we just written God out of the Megillah?
The answer to that question, I think, depends on how we see the interaction of humans with Divine Providence. I can’t pretend to know the secrets of exactly how God’s Hand works in concert with our actions, but I can say this: I don’t believe it is a zero sum game.
What’s a zero sum game? Well, look at competitive sports. When we play basketball, and I am winning, you, by definition, are losing. If the interaction between human free will and divine providence is a competition like basketball, then the extent to which we perceive a human as acting cleverly, working to promote his or her own self-interests – that would seem to diminish, in at least a small way, the role God plays in the world. It’s a zero sum game. To the extent that God is running things, I am passive. To the extent that I am working – I am forcing God, so to speak, to take a step back.
But is that the way it really works? I don’t think so.
If you asked Esther and Mordechai to weigh in on the extent to which God was involved in their story, what would they say? Did they – these great strategists – think it was all about them?
It seems not. Esther, before she goes to see the king, fasts for three days. She asks the entire Jewish community to fast with her. Why? I mean, didn’t that work against her strategy? Here you are, Queen of Persia, about to approach the king in his private chambers. And unless the king raises his scepter, it’s all over, you’ll be killed! Now, shouldn’t she be working on making sure she looks the best she can? Remember, Esther was picked in a beauty content! I don’t know about you, but I look pretty bad even when I’ve only fasted for one day! What is Esther’s plan here??
But Esther fasts… She fasts because she knows something. She knows that she can strategize all she wants, but it ain’t just about her strategy. If this thing is going to work, she’s going to need a partner - God is going to have to be her partner.
And, in fact, He is. Esther goes to the king, invites him to parties, plays her cards, spins the possibility of a love triangle with Haman. She plays it all beautifully. But did her strategy create a forgone conclusion of victory? Hardly.
What if Haman never showed up that particular night the king had insomnia? What if the steward hadn’t opened the record book to the page that recorded Mordechai foiling the assassination attempt? What if all that didn’t happen? Esther can strategize all she wants. Unless she has a partner, she hasn’t saved her people at all. It’s just an elegant failure. Everyone dies.
But what if the interaction between human free will and divine action isn’t a zero sum game, a competition? What if it’s a collaboration?
Some of the greatest things in life are creative collaborations. Think back to the peak experiences in your life? What were they? For me, some of my earliest, fondest memories come from backpacking in the woods with my father. We would climb mountains in a day, and thrill at our accomplishments. But it wouldn’t have been a peak experience if I had been alone. It was a thrill because I accomplished this all with him.
My daughter came home last night all charged up. She had just come back from something called a hackathon. She collaborated with a group of friends, spending twenty four hours building something new and exciting. There had once been a missing person in our neighborhood. My daughter had volunteered to help search, but she and her friends were turned away because the organizers couldn’t figure out how to use them. So she and those friends developed a software program, an overlay on Google Maps, that would allow rescuers to quickly and easily organize huge search parties, so that volunteers could really be put to work to help save lives. They did this together, working all night long.
She came home from the hackathon beaming. She told me, “Abba, you have no idea how thrilling it is to do what we did. We had an idea and we actually created it, all of us, together, in real life. We made something out of nothing!”
That’s it. The thrill of creativity, merged with sharing.
God is the ultimate Creator. It’s what we know about Him from the very beginning of Genesis. But He finishes off creation by creating someone just like Him. He makes humankind betzelem elokim – in the image of the Creator. He gifted the sacred ability to create...to us.
So now there’s two Creators in the world, Big Creator and little creator.
And what is the greatest joy that could possibly come to Big Creator? To have little creator join with Him in a creative project. That project is human history.
God asks us to bring all of our creativity to bear, to grab life by the throat and invest every last ounce of effort into making our world the best it can possibly be. God asks us to see problems and try to solve them. To see tyrants and try to stop them. To see cancer and try and cure it. If we pour every last ounce of energy and creativity into these endeavors, then perhaps we have the standing to turn and ask God: We have done what we can do, could you please be our partner?
When we do that, we are emulating Esther’s fast. We have the humility and brains to recognize that our actions, skill, smarts and drive do not minimize the Creator’s influence in the world – rather, they create the opportunity for a true partnership with the Creator. Why should God bother if we don’t bother? Why would God invest, if we don’t invest? Ah, but if we do…. then we, with some self-respect, can turn to the Creator and say, in effect: “God, do you really want to miss out here? There’s a great creative endeavor going on, it’s our lives! We can’t do it alone. We don’t want to do it alone. Come join us.”
In a way, Purim gives us a way to heighten the thrill of our own creativity. Mordechai and Esther could have revelled in their own brilliance. But they did not. They recognized a Divine partner, another Creator, in their drama. They realized something profound: that recognizing this partner, it doesn’t diminish their own contribution, because it wasn’t a zero sum game. On the contrary, their recognition of acting in partnership with the Divine, that made it taste all the sweeter. Creativity is always more meaningful when it’s shared. And there’s no more special privilege than to share it with God.
It is no wonder that Purim is a holiday of raucous joy. On Purim, we celebrate the ways in which Mordechai and Esther collaborated with God, and, by extension, we open our eyes to the existence of this kind of collaboration in our own daily lives. There can’t be anything more joyous, more thrilling, than that.
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