Purim: by telling ourselves stories we can open up a world of choices, or “is it bashert or is it what I do”

The book of Esther, the foundational text for the minor post biblical festival of Purim, is riddled with ambiguities and ambivalences, allusions and opacities, and we are uncomfortably aware that the text is a constant tease of hidden and revealed, covered and discovered, secret and known. Even the name of the eponymous heroine, Esther, comes from a Hebrew root that means concealment. Yet Esther is also related to the word for a star, which shines brightly under the right conditions.

The themes of concealment and revelation are constantly played with – God is never mentioned in the book, yet clearly God is at work here – and there are many other examples. Mordechai overhears a plot to kill the king from his hidden place and brings it to official attention;  Esther is constrained in the harem yet is able to influence the royal policy;  Vashti chooses to remain enclosed when ordered to reveal her beauty in public; , Mordechai’s act is recorded at the time but not revealed and rewarded till much later, the almost playful peek-a-boo of now you see it now you don’t is a thread that runs through the story,  our peripheral vision catching it momentarily as it disappears when we try to look straight at it.

Perhaps the most extraordinary “now you see it now you don’t” moment is in the interchange between Mordechai and Esther, carried on through the medium of Hatach, one of the king’s eunuchs. Mordechai sends word of everything that has happened with regard to the decree against the Jews, and tells Esther she must go to the king to make supplications on behalf of her people. Esther’s response via Hatach is that everyone knows that to approach the king in the innermost (hidden) courtyard without being invited is to risk certain death, and she has not been called to the king in thirty days.

We are right at the centre of the book – almost exactly at the centre in terms of the number of verses – as Mordechai answer’s Esther’s anxious justification for her inability to help. His answer is three fold. First he reminds her that she will not be safe either, even though she is in the harem. Secondly he tells her that the Jewish people will not be destroyed as help will most certainly come from another source if she continues to be inactive, and finally he asks a rhetorical question of her – could it be that this moment is the moment of destiny her life has been leading up to?

“Then Mordecai asked them to return his answer to Esther: ‘ Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape.  For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:13-14)

It is an extraordinary speech and it raises many questions for us too. The first is a reminder that should we try to keep our heads down and not resist injustice on the grounds that we may survive a toxic political climate by keeping our presence shadowy and not attracting attention to ourselves is a folly and a false position. One need only think of the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller castigating the German intellectuals for their silence in the face of rising Nazi power:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Or the quotation famously attributed to the political philosopher Edmund Burke that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing”, reframed by Albert Einstein as “The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.”

The second assertion is a classical theological position that God will never abandon the Jewish people, even though at times it may appear that God is silent, uncaring, absent, or even chas v’chalila apparently allowing Jewish suffering at this time for some particular purpose. This is a deeply problematic area in theology, not least because of the deep suffering during the Shoah, and while the idea of ‘hester panim, the face of God is concealed from us”  may be rooted in the words of such books as the prophet Isaiah, so that the act of God concealing God’s face is understood as a way of God punishing disobedient subjects, by far the prevailing Jewish sentiment is that of Job:  God may appear to be distant and God’s face hidden from us, but as Martin Buber writes, “a hiding God is also a God who can be found”.

So while the Jews were facing a terrible crisis throughout the empire, Mordechai knew and asserted that relief would come, that God would turn towards them and help them, that even if Esther failed to deliver the liberation, the Jewish people would still prevail.  “Relief and deliverance will arise from a different place”.

The third statement is probably the most challenging for us, the question Mordechai asks Esther “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” This is a formulation of the idea of having a destiny, a preordained role in life, something which can be found in expressions of folk religions, but which comes dangerously close to encroaching on our freedom of will, freedom of choice.

The Talmud tells us that “everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven” reminding us of our absolute freedom of will and our own absolute responsibility for our actions. We are entirely free to make our own choices, God has no power over this.

So Mordechai questioning Esther with the veiled suggestion that her destiny has led her to be in such a position, able to make a difference to the experience of the Jewish people, is problematic and in need of our attention. Can she have been destined for this moment?

Many of us like to think that there is a plan in the world, that the universe is not random and our existence in it not merely incidental and accidental.  We like to locate ourselves in something that has meaning; we like to tell ourselves stories to make sense of our life and our choices.

Judaism is predicated on the freedom of will, but still our narratives contain hints of ways to try to understand the mind of God. Decision-making involving the casting of lots (goralim) is mentioned 77 times in the biblical narrative:- in the story of the scapegoat, in the allocation of tribal territories  once the people enter the land of Israel, described both before in the book of Numbers and after in the book of Joshua. Lots are cast in the books of Chronicles to divide the priestly work, in Jonah to decide who is responsible for God sending the storm, and are mentioned in both Psalms and Proverbs as well of course of the famous ‘purim’ cast in the book of Esther to decide a favourable date.  One might also argue that the Urim and Thumim found in the breastplate of the High Priest in the book of Exodus were artefacts of divination to understand the will of God (Exodus 28:30), though they did not always seem to give a certainty, as King Saul found (Sam 28:6) and their use seems to have ended by the early days of the monarchy and the advent of the prophetic tradition.

One of the things that makes us human is our need for storytelling. We are generally uncomfortable with an entirely random context, with the idea that only arbitrary luck brought us into being, of there being no framework of meaning supporting our existence. So we tell ourselves stories to support our choices and those stories in turn become our inner dialogue and shape what we think is possible or justifiable.

Whether we frame our stories in quasi-religious or in historical or political language, we hold these narratives dear because they explain us to ourselves.  In the words of the less than conventionally religious Jewish thinker Karl Marx “[people] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language”

We make our choices in life, but these choices are shaped by our context, by how we understand ourselves and our history and how we got to be in the place we are. Whether it is because we believe in something to be ‘bashert’ – (our destiny somehow gifted from God), or whether we consider that the decision making is ours alone, we still tell stories around how we come to our choices, we allow our internal narratives to shape us, to help form what we think and to give us the courage to act. Whether because we believe God is guiding us or we believe that history and context have privileged us;  whether we can tell ourselves it will all be alright because somewhere there is a plan, or we can tell ourselves that if we fail it is because of the randomness of luck, each of us holds to the thread of meaning we tell ourselves is our truth.

One of the questions that arises from Mordechai’s question to Esther is one we  might sometimes ask of ourselves. “Do we feel that our lives have been organised to bring us to a moment of critical action or decision making?”  And if so, what are the things we feel ourselves put on the earth to do? Or maybe to change the perspective slightly – do we feel, looking back on our lives so far, that our existence has impacted positively on the world around us in any way, that we have done things of which we are proud, that are something uniquely ours to have achieved?

Mordechai tells Esther that her not acting will not save her, nor will her inaction change the thrust of history into the future – the Jews will be saved by some means or other, and he introduces to her then that the choice of whether she acts or does not act is in the context of a story she can tell herself – that maybe God has put her in this place where she can risk a meeting with the King in order to try to save her people. This is a powerful pivot in the story that speaks also to us. Our choices cannot be made on the basis of trying to survive a hostile power by keeping a low profile. We need to make choices actively, and there will be consequences that are contingent on our choices. Knowing that, what is important is the story we tell ourselves to confirm or justify the choices we make.

What are the stories that we tell ourselves? The narrative of Jewish persecution and survival is a strong one in our tradition, embodied in many of our festivals with the rather tongue in cheek “they tried to kill us off, they failed, let’s eat”.  Yet alongside this celebration is the remembrance of the  pain and the fear of our history – we look around us to see from where an attack may come, worry about our own likely responses.  We see ourselves as modern, western, education, integrated citizens of our countries, at the same time as identifying with an ancient and particular tradition that encourages a different set of perspectives.  We understand that history rolls on, that our actions may affect its particular course but not its ultimate progression. Our internal story telling may give us the courage to act in a particular way, it may allow us to justify ex post facto the choices we made and our actions or inactions, our beliefs shape how we see the world and help us to imagine a different one.  We toy with the dynamic interface between free-will and destiny, and nowhere in bible is that so clear as in Mordechai’s threefold response to Esther. We must act in the world, we must understand that our actions are neither  ultimate or irrevocable, but we are not free to hide away from making those choices.

Our tradition has always given us a helping set of stories so that we can construct a narrative that will support our choices. Be it Hillel haZakein who told us “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” or Rabbi Tarfon who taught “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” we know the imperative is to act to make the world a better place for our being in it.  In the words again of Hillel haZakein, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. go and learn.”






Parashat Vayelech, Shabbat Shuvah and thoughts for the asseret y’mei teshuvah

The Mishnah tells us that “Everything is foreseen, nonetheless free will is given”. How can we come to terms with a God who knows what tragedies will happen, yet who does nothing to prevent it, and who will, in the words of this sidra, “Hide the divine countenance from us”, allowing us to be ready prey for our enemies?

And If God anticipates and even knows what the future might bring, of what significance is our own free will?

The problem arises again and again in bible, beginning in the book of Genesis with the eating of the fruit in the Garden of Eden, and mirrored here at the end of Deuteronomy with God’s disclosure to Moses about what will happen after his death.

The contradiction is addressed in traditional Judaism with the mishnah I began with, the idea that God’s omniscience includes a complete awareness of human nature and of how people will behave, yet God also allows us to make our own choices from the full spectrum of possible actions. And the mishnah takes the idea further by telling us that “Everything is in the hands of God, except the fear of God” – in other words, from the rabbis’ perspective, God has chosen to limit Godself in one important aspect so as to allow human beings to do that which makes us so special to God and makes us in God’s image – we are able to exercise choice.

The idea of limiting God – even of God choosing to limit Godself – is one which comes close to blasphemy, and yet that is the boundary with which we have to work, for it is the area in which we exist.

The mystical tradition tells us that when God decided to create the world, God first had to draw back, to create some space in which God was not, so that God could create a distinct entity that was not-God. Having created the world in this space-that-was-not-God, God then breathed something of Godself in the form of divine light, or holy sparks. These holy sparks are said to be the manifestation of God with which we work and struggle, the immanence of God in the place where God has chosen to limit Godself.

Our tradition tells us that God has chosen, for the sake of the existence of humanity, to limit God’s active presence in our world, and has given us the choice to either accept or to ignore God’s presence; to either attempt to meet God’s requirements or to turn our backs on God. God’s wish is clearly that we search for relationship, that we obey the mitzvot and in so doing partner God in completing the work of the creation of the world – but in no way will God push us into having to accept that position, nor will God intervene in history to change what we do, or to alter the consequences that will arise from how we choose to behave.

If we turn our back on God, if we choose to be alienated from God, then the consequence will be that God is hidden from us. God is limited by our human freedom to engage – or not to engage. As the writer of Deuteronomy wrote: ‘Lo bashamayim hi” – it is not in heaven that you need to say ‘who will go there for us…” And as the psalmist echoed “The heavens are the domain of God, but the earth has been given to human kind”. We have this world in which to exercise our choice, and our choice must be informed by having Torah, by being able, as Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs once said, to think God’s thoughts after Him.

In this world of extremist teachings and of secular explanations it becomes easy to either blame God for terrible and tragic events, or else to find other places to lay blame – a government’s foreign policy maybe, the anonymised disaffection or alienation of a mass of people, capitalism. What seems to get lost is the actual and personal decisions made by individual people, the choices to act or not to act, the thoughtfulness and stage by stage process of decision making. Individual autonomy and responsibility gets submerged in the rhetoric of blame and anger, glib reasoning and political analysis tries to explain away real and personal choices.

“Everything is foreseen and yet free will is given. Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven…” We have a God who has deliberately limited Godself in our world to allow us to express unhindered our essential humanity and our freedom to choose. Our tradition shows us again and again that God took a chance when God created human beings to be free – every narrative in bible demonstrates that God, like us, must therefore bear the consequence of our freely chosen actions. God’s knowledge of what could be and what will be remains – what Nachmanides calls ‘knowledge in potential’ – yet God’s action can only be done through human channels. The responsibility for how the world will be is ours alone, for the choices are ours alone – millions of individual and personal choices continually being made.

During these ten days of Teshuvah, of our returning to our root of Being, we have the opportunity to read and to reflect, to study, to think and to pray. We have the opportunity to put right what we can put right, to apologise for what we can no longer amend, to act choicefully to make our world a better place. We have the choice and we have the responsibility. We can begin to seek God’s presence, to confront God’s hidden face. As God said to Joshua at the beginning of his journey – hazak v’ematz… be strong and resolute, v’anochi ehyeh imach – for I will be with you.


One of the biggest differences between Judaism and Christianity derives from the story of Adam and Eve and their leaving Eden. According to Christianity, this is a story of a fall from grace, and is linked to the doctrine of original sin – that human beings are born in a state of impurity which derives from the pride and disobedience shown by Adam and Eve in the garden. Judaism is emphatically opposed to this idea – indeed our morning prayers include the words “My God, the soul which You gave me is pure, You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me. You preserve it within me and You will take it from me…” a prayer that can be found in the Talmud (Berachot 60b).

The story of the leaving of Eden is not a tragic event, something that should never have happened; and we should not spend our lives yearning to return there – after all, why would God create a garden in which there are two trees that we should not eat from, if not to challenge us and to provide a catalyst?

Adam and Eve in the garden are innocents, they are like new-born children, and if kept in that state they will never be able to grow and learn and develop their own ideas and identities. Making mistakes is part of growing up and becoming who we are. The story of leaving the Garden of Eden is a story of maturation, of acquiring independence, of leaving home in order to become one’s own full self. Making mistakes is how we learn.

Jewish teaching tells us that we are born with a pure soul, and that we are responsible for its state. We will make mistakes, we will – in common parlance – sin, and we have a mechanism in order to remedy those mistakes, Teshuvah. Often translated loosely as ’Repentance’, in fact Teshuvah means to turn back, to return to God and become our best selves.  Judaism further teaches that we have two competing drives, the Yetzer haTov and the Yetzer haRa – the inclination to do good by acting selflessly, and the inclination to act selfishly. We have free will and can make our own decisions about which inclination we might follow at any given time. And sometimes the more selfish choices are important ones too, as understood by the Midrash (rabbinic exegesis on the bible)

“Nachman said in R Samuel’s name “Behold it was very good” refers to the good desire (Yetzer haTov), “and behold it was very good” also refers to the evil desire (Yetzer haRa). Can then the evil desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But for the evil desire however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 9:7)

So we need to have a selfish inclination, we just have to keep it in check, develop and practise a sense of morality. As we mature, it is this sense of responsibility to others, this moral code that influences the choices we make.  And this is the sense of responsibility that Adam and Eve lacked in the garden; it is arguably something they could only acquire with experience.

We are born with a pure soul. And we are born with two competing urges – to act for our own good and to act for the good of others. Sometimes these are compatible, sometimes they are not; sometimes that is obvious to us, sometimes it becomes obvious only in retrospect.

We become responsible for our own actions and our own choices, but we have the possibility always to return our souls to the pure state in which they were given to us, by acts of Teshuvah, of implementing the moral code. The story of the leaving of Eden is the story of both Eve and Adam choosing to follow the Yetzer ha Ra, to act according to a more selfish need. Had they not done so, one assumes that humanity would never have grown and developed, never exercised free will and made moral choices.

An important message of this story is NOT that people are evil by nature, that we are flawed from birth and spend our lives attempting to attain a state of goodness, but that we should use our more selfish as well as our more selfless impulses for creating a better world.  Both are necessary, it is how we balance these impulses, how we moderate our behaviours with our moral and ethical understandings that matters. We are never cast away from God  with no route back – the door is always open, our souls are given from God, preserved by God and will return to God. But the state they are in during the time we have them, that is a continuing and constant choice for us to make.