Purim, Bed Rest, and a Hidden God: A Pregnant Rabbi's Modern-Day Midrash
Purim is coming, a wild holiday that holds its place alongside Yom Kippur and Passover as a dramatic story in the Hebrew Bible’s accounts of redemption and revelation. But, unlike these other stories, Megillat Esther does not mention God. How can this be?
According to the ancient rabbis, God is hidden.
God is only referred to once, and it’s a vague reference: If Esther refuses to act then “help” will come from another place. (Esther 4:14)
Why is God hidden, and what might we learn from God’s (alleged) absence?
Perhaps God is hidden to enhance human agency so we learn to take control of our lives. This is a story in which God steps back in order to allow humans to take up more space. We see Esther and Mordechai engineer the saving of the Jewish people through their own wisdom and courage.
Perhaps God is hidden because no one has yet called out to God. Once Esther declares a communal fast, the plot speeds up and the Jews are soon saved. Thus, God is revealed when human beings reach out to connect – a reminder not to be passive in our relationship with the Divine.
Perhaps God is hidden the way Esther’s Jewish identity is hidden. It’s a literary device. The one who knows that the theme of hiddenness runs throughout the story has no fear of God’s absence.
A fourth reading for us to consider challenges the aphorism, “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” In the midst of a traumatic story in which the Jewish people are on the brink of annihilation, God appears hidden because, simply put, it’s difficult to connect with God when we are anxious and terrified.
When Mordechai confronts Esther with the news that Jews will be killed, he demands action. She hesitates. He pushes back. Eventually, Esther’s response is to ask all the Jews to fast alongside her and her maidens for three days while she prepares herself to approach the king. In this space of terror and uncertainty, we don’t see Esther reach out with traditional prayer.
Quoting a verse from Psalms, the rabbis imagine it was Esther who prayed the words, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1) but that’s a midrash. In the simple reading of the text, there are no prayers – only fasting. She does what she has to do to get through the crisis, one party at a time.
It’s only after Haman is hanged and the Jews are saved that they establish the holiday and the ritual of remembrance. Throughout our tradition, but especially here, the ritual of gratitude can be read as the recovery of God language – the return to relationship. It’s as if to say, “Now that we’re through that rough spot, I’d like to go back and say thanks for those moments when it all could have gone terribly wrong…”
Why is God hidden? Perhaps it’s a reminder that some of our most challenging times will be navigated without the obvious help of an intercessory God – but that doesn’t mean God is absent, just temporarily hidden. Our challenge is to set up a reminder of this truth so we don’t increase our anxiety in an already-anxious time.
A modern-day midrash:
During my eight weeks of hospital bed rest while pregnant, I stopped by the room of a woman down the hall from me. (I had permission to walk the hallway once a day!) I peeked in to say hi, and she introduced me to her visitors: “Everyone, this is the rabbi I told you about…”
“Oh, rabbi,” said one of her friends, “I’m so glad you’re here. Can you give me a blessing?”
I was wearing sweatpants and an oversized sweatshirt, my hair piled in a messy bun, being asked to give a blessing while on my one walk of the day!
Turns out, she didn’t realize I was a patient. She thought I was making rounds, and when she realized I was a patient on bed rest and that I wasn’t “working," she withdrew her request.
Retelling this story, I’m reminded of how difficult it is to pray from spaces of vulnerability and fear. Receiving her prayer request, my heart raced in anticipation of trying to pray to a God who felt distant, hidden. What would I say on her behalf? What would be authentic and healing?
There are high expectations for us (and for rabbis) to turn to God in times of distress. Esther’s struggle alongside a hidden God can be an important teaching about what’s possible to expect from fragile, vulnerable souls. We may not have the words until after our moment of tension, pain, or fear has passed.
Perhaps this is the wisdom in the request to pray on behalf of those who are sick – not because our prayers are more effective, but because those who are sick don’t have the capacity themselves.
Perhaps this is the wisdom of the Psalmist who wrote, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” The Psalmist doesn’t say anything about prayer or God’s response to prayer, just: I know you are there, and that comforts me. Tthat’s enough.
A fellow rabbi came to visit me in the hospital on Erev Rosh Hashanah. In the midst of my personal turmoil, he walked in with a shofar, a smile, and a copy of our new High Holy Day machzor (prayer book). So sweet!
I kept the prayer book by my bedside but, I confess, I didn’t open it. During the next few days, I mostly stared at the contraction monitor, willing it to remain even. But just as the Psalmist had God’s rod and staff as reminders of God’s presence, I had my machzor. It stayed with me in my room, a reminder of God’s presence and my community’s presence. A reminder that while God felt hidden, that concealment was only temporary.
Ironically, as we celebrate a holiday marked by God’s absence, may this celebration help to remind us of God’s continual presence, and may we find reminders that reveal God’s hidden presence in our most challenging times.