Megillas Esther: A Story of Theodicy

So here are some thoughts that have been on my mind for the past week. They’re still a little disjointed, so bear with me.

The question of theodicy is one of my biggest intrigues in religion. I love reading about the subject, and trying to understand all the sides to the question, and the (non) answers we have for it. In going through NaCH, the question is addressed many times, each with similar answers. Most notable is Iyov, where the question of theodicy plays out on a grand scale, when the Satan dares God to test Iyov’s faith, and God, for some reason, takes the bait.

With each successive test of faith, Iyov refuses to renounce or curse God, and yet, in chapter three, he curses the day he was born, and expresses anger and despair at his situation. Maintaining his innocence throughout the book despite his “friends'” accusations, all Iyov wants is an explanation for why bad things happened to an innocent man. What’s particularly difficult about reading Iyov is the fact that throughout the book you know God’s reason – to win a bet – while Iyov agonises for over thirty chapters.

Even more unsatisfying is the ending, where Iyov finally does get his answer, which amounts to “shut up, I’m God, you don’t get to understand my plans.” the answer inspires both faith and distrust in God. Faith because given God’s omnipotence we can assume that in the next world if not in this one all debts are reckoned and all wrongs are righted. Distrust because God gives such a high and mighty answer (I created the world, I created great creatures to play with, I created rivers, oceans, mountains, etc) to cover up such a petty reason for torturing a person.

Parenthetically, I think it’s important to note (and I believe this often gets overlooked) Iyov is not a particularly flattering book for God, and yet it was included in the canon. Obviously God didn’t really have much of a direct say in that, but to me it speaks further to an acknowledgement on the part of our forbears that God is meant to be grappled with, questioned, confronted, that these are elements of any relationship in conflict, where one party has a claim against the other; an acknowledgement that it’s not healthy to hold it all in, but to let it all out, and ultimately resolve it. I may be taking liberty with that interpretation, but that’s what the inclusion of Iyov says to me, in addition to its message on theodicy.

But Iyov only answers one aspect of theodicy – it only serves to justify God’s position in the question. It does nothing to instruct us, the people who suffer from God’s mysterious plan, how to handle the question. Because God’s answer is unsatisfying, in Iyov. All it says is that God has a reason, and we shouldn’t question it. It implies that debts will be reckoned, and wrongs righted, but it doesn’t tell us why an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God couldn’t come up with a better plan.

And that’s where I believe Megillas Esther comes in.

A lot is said about the fact that God isn’t mentioned once in Megillas Esther. There are different explanations as to why. Either because politically it was dangerous to gloat too much, and rub a foreign God in the faces of the Persians, who didn’t just magically start loving Jews simply because the Jews killed a bunch of them. The Megillah says that a fear of the Jews fell on the people, it says nothing about love. Or because God was in a state of hester panim, hiding God’s face, because of the sin of attending Ahasuerus’ feast. But I think there’s another, perhaps stronger message there.

There are different circumstances under which miracles happen in the Torah. Sometimes it’s out of necessity. The Jews were complaining about food, so God sent them food. They complained about water, so God sent them water. They were languishing in Egypt, worshipping idols, and God came and saved them. Many of the miracles in the Torah required no action on the part of the Jewish people, with a few notable exceptions.

Most notably, at the splitting of the sea (well, at least according to midrash). Pharaoh’s army is converging upon them, as they stand with their backs to the Red Sea, asking Moshe if he took them so far into the wilderness because there weren’t enough graves in Egypt. Except this time, no miracle happened. The Egyptians kept coming, and the sea didn’t split. Until Nachson ben Aminadav walked into the water and nearly drowned himself. That’s when the sea split. God needed a stronger reason to perform that miracle than just the complaints of the Jews. God needed an active testament of faith.

But more to the point, God seemed absent in the situation until there was an active testament of faith. Very much like the story in Megillas Esther.

Esther is another quintessential story of how theodicy should be handled, not as a theological question, but practically. Esther is gathered along with all of the young women if the empire, and stuck in the king’s harem. She refuses all accouterments and cosmetics in an attempt to repulse the king. Despite that, the king, for some reason, picks her to be Queen. There are opinions that claim that the entire relationship was non-consensual. There are further opinions that Esther was already married to, Mordechai.

Further in the text, we see that Esther has fallen out of favour with Ahasuerus. This woman, Esther, whom he chose not as another concubine in his harem but as the Queen of his empire, whom he wanted so badly despite how plain she made herself, just a few years into their marriage, had not been summoned to the king in a whole month. My guess is that he got sick of her being unenthusiastic about the whole non-consensual thing, but was stuck with her as Queen. In any event, she was stuck in a pretty horrible situation, and the question of theodicy had to be on her mind.

And then the decree to annihilate the Jews reaches her from Mordechai, and Mordechai asks her to approach the king, illegally, after he hasn’t wanted to see her for thirty days. And her response, as you can imagine, was not enthusiastic. His answer, though, is the nugget here. “And who knows if this is exactly why you came to be Queen?”

I didn’t fully appreciate this question until last week, but it’s incredible, really. He’s not telling her that God’s purpose was definitely so she could be in position for this. In fact he tells her that he believes salvation will come from someplace else if she doesn’t want to take any action. But what he’s really saying is, “Esther, I know things are terrible for you. I know you don’t understand why bad things are happening to you. But what if – what if – the purpose is what you make it? What if, despite never being able to ask God why God did this to you, you hew your own purpose from this personal tragedy, and make that purpose the salvation of your people?”

And that’s when the miracle happened. Not in a blaze of Godly glory, but in an almost incontrovertibly miraculous series of coincidences catalysed by Esther’s active testament of faith in accepting that there was a plan, acknowledging that the true purpose will remain unknown, but finding her own purpose, and acting upon it, even though it might have led to her death. God saw this active testament of faith, this personal answer to theodicy, and the miracle began.

Because sometimes miracles happen, and sometimes we make miracles happen. And sometimes they’re grand and glorious and obvious, and sometimes they’re subtle and almost coincidental. But while the big obvious miracles may seem more significant, it’s actually the smaller, less obvious miracles that are the true testament to faith. The miracles that happen when we don’t just sit back, complain, and wait for God to do something miraculous, but when we proactively decide to take action, ascribe meaning and purpose to our situation, and do something about it, not certain if it will actually work, but with a belief that if we take the first step, if we act on that purpose, that we will receive some kind of quiet (or not so quiet) heavenly assistance. Because that’s the ultimate testament of faith, and that’s the real answer to theodicy (insofar as we get any answer), and Purim is the celebration of that faith.

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3 thoughts on “Megillas Esther: A Story of Theodicy

  1. Interesting article, here are two notes:

    1) You should explain the definition of theodicy, so that we don’t have to go through the harrowing trouble of Googling it. Not that I had to, I’m obviously referring to a friend…

    2) On a more somber note, I’m invoking Godwin’s Law to see if I can infer the obverse from your article:

    If I understand correctly, you’re making the argument that in light of never being able to truly understand G-d’s motives and long term plans, our best bet is to accept our different roles, and use them for what we THINK G-d wants. The result being that we end up playing directly into G-d’s plan, or at the very least, we tried to fall in line with G-d’s plan, and in matters of relationships between man and G-d, trying counts a long way.

    I like that idea. One could say that Esther was simply a pawn of G-d (we technically all are), and she just moved along a set track. But we don’t say that. We praise her and Mordechai (and Charvonah, to a lesser extent; refer to song) as the heroes who took the initiative. Perhaps revach v’hatzalah might have come from elsewhere, but it didn’t, and that’s very significant and praiseworthy.

    On to Godwin’s Law – the “obverse”: In talking about the Holocaust, there are obviously many Legos we need to avoid walking on. It’s terrible when anyone hints at blaming the victims, and it’s terrible when people assume they know what sins caused what destruction to happen. But without mentioning specifics, there have been those that say that the destruction in Europe came because of X, Y, and Z (“Z” being the talking in shuls, but I have a theory about what that really means, and why it actually is significant not in the way most people think).

    By extension, it’s easy to say that Hitler was just a pawn of G-d, just as Pharaoh was, and just as Nebuchadnezzar was. Nothing happens without G-d allowing it, so we can’t assign specific blame to the parties involved. But we can.

    Perhaps destruction and pain might have come from elsewhere. But Esther saved the day, not Shoshana (a fictional Jewess who lived in the nice condos in the East End of Shushan), and so, Esther is praised in our eyes before G-d.

    And Hitler was… well, you know. It could have been Anders Gunderson (a fictional Swede who was expelled from the art academy in Goethenburg), but it wasn’t.

    I think we need to recognize that in the end of the day, it’s up to G-d. But we believe in free will, which seems contradictory, but it isn’t. Free will allows us to choose if we’ll be the hero that Gotham deserves, or G-d will find his pawns elsewhere. And nobody wants to go down in history as the guy who didn’t choose at all. To quote Gary Lee Weinrib: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

    If you don’t know who that is, Google him. Sucks, doesn’t it?

    • Thank you for that well thought out comment. I enjoyed reading it.

      That’s exactly the point. We have no idea why things happen, but what we make of it is entirely our own decision. It’s the same approach I take to the free will discussion in general. To me the question of whether or not we have free will is irrelevant. We have, at the very least, the illusion of free will. In other words, even if let’s say we don’t actually have free will, we live in a world where we seem to have free will, and we are therefore responsible to act as though we have free will. Taken to its extreme, as you said, that’s why Hitler is responsible for his actions. Whether or not he was actually a pawn in God’s cosmic game of chess, he was still the one who did it. In a world where we seem to have free will, deciding to murder millions was a conscious choice.

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