Purim: No prophets in the marketplace

Prophets rail no more
in the marketplace,
pitching God’s word.
The people are distant,
out of range of His call.

God woos us no longer,
shielding His face.
He affords us the freedom
to act, or not,
for justice and peace.

When the enemy looms –
the hate-filled Haman
bent on destruction –
will Esther, likened to dawn
after night’s darkest hour,
bring forth the light?

In his book The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther, Yoram Hazony asks, “What can be the meaning of a book in the Bible in which there is no mention of God, however so incidental, if not to inform us, two thousand years before Nietzsche, that the evidence of God’s actions in the world has ceased – that the earth has been unchained from its sun, that it has grown darker, colder. For this much, one has no need for [the book of] Esther, which, coming as it does a century after the reduction of Jerusalem, can hardly seem more than a bitter redundancy.” Hazony points out that the departure of God from among men was foretold, both in Devarim 31:17 (And My anger will flare up against them and I will abandon them and I will hide My face from them. They shall be ready prey and many evils and troubles will befall them. And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us….”) and by Jeremiah later on, speaking of the demise of Jerusalem, saying that all that had been achieved in creation was later destroyed. In which case, Hazony points out, Esther would seem to be a contradiction as it celebrates the possibility of Jewish rulership and power without Jerusalem, and Jewish victory without God!
However, he continues that Esther is, in fact, the “classic text of Jewish continuity” for although it speaks of a different place and time, of Jews in exile and disconnected from God, yet it is the familiar story of Amalek, the arch-idolator and anti-Jew attempting to attain supremacy and the Jews standing up against evil and seeking to rule themselves with “words of peace and truth.”
Hazony brings the dictum of Rava, that the Jews accepted Torah twice, once on Sinai (when they had no choice other than to accept it) and again, in the days of Ahasuerus, when they accepted it out of free will. He says that in the first thousand years of Jewish faith, the word of God could hardly be escaped – saturated as the culture was by the words of priest and prophet. By the time the Jews were dispersed in Persia, the prophets no longer appeared in the marketplaces and in any event the people were exiled throughout over 120 provinces and exposed to foreign influences so that God’s word ceased to be audible to them (hence the rabbis’ conclusion, “whoever lives outside the land of Israel can be considered as though he has no God.”) By now, God had “hidden His face” from man, had ceased to appear at all. But this had in no way diminished the voice of evil. The opposite was true – never since Pharaoh had Israel been so helpless as when Haman arose. The same task of overcoming evil was there, only this time, man alone bore the responsibility for taking on the mission.

Hazony points out that many interpretations of the book of Esther are based on the premise that God’s absence is a literary ploy in a story suffused with divine intervention. Yet he maintains that the “truly great events are not …the clever convergences of the plot (which) can be interpreted as hidden divine activism. Rather they are found in the initiatives of Mordechai and Esther, who repeatedly choose to risk everything for the sake of right and truth…” According to the narrative itself though, it is these actions carried out by humans which ultimately vanquish evil. Hazony suggests that Mordechai and Esther understood this transition of responsibility from God to man and they rose to the challenge of fighting idolatry and tyranny to save their people and their faith. So he says that the remarkable aspect of the book is not God’s absence itself, but the fact His absence does not induce despair and defeat. He says, “Man may still find out what God wishes of him, but he will not be given the answers; he will have to seek them. Man may still participate in the actions of God in history, but he will not be called to them; he will have to initiate them. And man may still see God’s justice and peace brought into being in the world, but it will not be handed to him, he will have to build it.”