God knows how Eliezer’s mind works. It goes off into other dimensions every time I try to have a serious conversation with him. That’s what happened on Purim this year. I waited through the entire reading of the megillah, the Book of Esther, to point out to him Chapter 4, verse 14, which I’d never really thought about before.
illustration by Pepe Fainberg
“Ki ‘im taharishi ba-‘et ha-zot’ revah ve-hatzalah ya‘amod le-yehudim mi-makom aher,” Eliezer reads as my finger traces the word. He translates: “‘But if you remain silent at this time, reprieve and deliverance will come to the Jews from elsewhere.’ So?”
“So this is what Mordecai says to Esther when he tells her about Haman’s plot to kill the Jews,” I point out. “That she really doesn’t have to do anything, because the Jews are going to be saved anyway.”
“Well, if that’s God’s plan,” says Eliezer, “then I guess he’s right. What’s the big deal?”
“So it makes no difference what Esther does,” I stress.
“Okay,” Eliezer says. “So it makes no difference.”
I flip back in the Bible to Exodus, Chapter 3, the story of the Burning Bush.
“But with Moses it makes a difference,” I said. “It’s not like God gives him a choice. He says that he’s heard the affliction of his people and that he’s going to take them to a land flowing with milk and honey, and then he tells Moses, ‘So get up, I’m sending you to Pharaoh and you’re taking the children of Israel out of Egypt.’ Moses objects and says he’s not an appropriate envoy, he doesn’t have what it takes: ‘Who am I,’ he asks, ‘that I should go to Pharaoh and take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?’ And God just says, go ahead, no questions, I’m behind you.”
“This reminds me of a story,” Eliezer says.
“Eliezer,” I say a bit impatiently, “you are getting off the subject. You always do that. Just answer my question. Why does God absolutely need Moses to save the Children of Israel, but he doesn’t really need Esther at all? Why can someone else do Esther’s job if she doesn’t, but no one else can do Moses’s job?”
“I heard this story from a guy at work,” Eliezer says. “He told me that his wife has a friend, Shira, who lost a son in the army. That is, he was killed in some sort of accident.”
“Don’t you see there’s a theological contradiction here?” I say. “Do individual actions make a difference, or are they just fluff that have no effect on to the divine plan?”
“So of course Shira is devastated. Furthermore, she’s divorced and she has no one to lean on except her younger daughter and son,” Eliezer relates. “And her best friend Edna.”
The service is nearly over, the final mourner’s kaddish is being recited, and the worshipers are already filing out of the sanctuary. But Eliezer and I remain standing by our seats in the front row.
“What’s the only consequence of Esther not reporting Haman’s plot to the king?” I ask. “Mordecai is explicit about that: ‘You and your father’s house will perish,’ he warns her. That’s it? The only compelling reason he can give her to risk her life is that it’ll save her own skin? Don’t forget that she’s an orphan—her father’s dead and she’s the only member of her father’s house around.”
“You won’t be surprised to hear,” Eliezer says, “that her oldest son’s death plunges Shira into deep depression. She stops going to work, she sits at home and cries all day. She can’t function.”
“But imagine,” I say, “if Moses had stood his ground and said, ‘No thanks, not for me, I’m just going to stay here with my sheep.’ The way it sounds in Exodus, the children of Israel would have been stuck in slavery for the foreseeable future. And note that God doesn’t threaten Moses and his family with destruction.”
Eliezer waves his arm as if to dismiss everything I’m saying. “Edna is really worried. ‘How long can you live this way?’ she asks Shira. ‘Pull yourself together!’ ‘Don’t give me those old clichés,’ Shira says. ‘You know, what they all say. Be strong. You still have your other children. He had a good life. Time heals.’”
I jab him in the chest with my right index finger. “How do you explain such a huge contradiction?”
Eliezer won’t stop. “It’s clear to Edna that a big part of the problem is that Shira’s alone. A mother’s grief is incurable, but a man’s love can be an effective palliative. So she urges her to get out and meet someone.”
“Esther doesn’t say she’s the wrong person for the job,” I point out. “She’s quite obviously the right person. She’s as close to the king as can be. ‘Who knows,’ Mordecai tells her, “whether you have not come into royal status precisely to be available at a time like this?’”
“Shira thinks Edna’s crazy. ‘I’m pushing 50,’ she says. ‘What man is going to give me a second glance?’ ‘Just go on JDate,’ they say. ‘Everyone does.’”
“Moses explicitly says he doesn’t have the right mojo for the job. ‘What am I supposed to say to the Children of Israel?’ he asks. Why should they believe me?’”
Eliezer grabs my hand and leads me out of the sanctuary and out into the street—the final stragglers are leaving and the guard is locking the door. “So she goes on JDate and chats with a guy who sounds kind of nice and seems to understand her. He’s a widower named Aharon and he invites her for coffee and she agrees.”
“God provides Moses with all sorts of signs and portents to convince him and Pharaoh and the Children of Israel that God is out to save his people. Esther goes to see the king without a single promise. She hasn’t even heard anything directly from God. She’s only heard from Mordecai and he seems to be operating on the basis of his own deductions and intuitions. No sign of revelation or prophecy.”
“The date’s for 8 p.m. Just as a precaution,” Eliezer says, “Shira tells Edna to call her cell phone at 8:30. If the guy’s a dork, she’ll tell him that something urgent has come up and she’s very sorry but she has to leave.”
“Eliezer,” I say, “Get serious. I’m talking about God.”
“And I’m telling you about Shira,” he says. “So they meet and he’s actually a nice guy, not bad looking, dresses well. She starts telling him about her son, and he listens with great sympathy.”
“Either God needs us to be part of his plan,” I say, “Or he can do without us. Either what we do makes a difference or it doesn’t. It can’t be both ways.”
“So guess what happens?” Eliezer says, sitting down on the stairs outside the synagogue and motioning for me to sit down next to him. “Guess.”
“Haven’t a clue.”
“Aharon’s cell phone rings. Of course, she’s sure that he’s arranged with his best friend to call just like she’s arranged with Edna. And now she’s sure she’s flubbed it, that he’s desperate to get away from her. He takes the call and suddenly his face goes pale. The phone drops from his hand. He falls to the floor and starts having what looks like convulsions. Shira is in shock. What’s going on? Finally he gasps, between wails, ‘My father! My father! He’s dead!’”
“It’s my opinion that the Book of Esther is a better guide for us today than Exodus,” I say. “Exodus is a book of supernatural miracles. Esther is a book of everyday miracles, miracles that maybe aren’t miracles at all.”
“So here Shira, still deep in mourning for her son, is confronted with a hysterical man making a public scene in a café. What’s she supposed to do?”
“I think that Esther doesn’t risk her life by appearing before the king because she thinks that she can change the course of history,” I say. “She does it because she wants to be part of the story. If she doesn’t do it, the story will still be written, but she won’t be part of it.”
“What can she do? She gets down on the floor, takes his head into her lap, and murmurs to him, ‘Be strong. You still have your children. He had a good life. Time heals.’ She explains to the dismayed waitress and the alarmed customers what has happened. She helps Aharon get up, brushes him off, takes him out to his car, and drives him home.”
“Eliezer, will you shut up and listen to me? I’m telling you that it’s Esther, not Moses, who should be our role model. We shouldn’t expect God’s voice to ring in our ears, telling us exactly what to do, giving us the script for our lives and miracles to prove to ourselves and to others that we are the means of redemption. We need to be like Esther, who decides to act in the world even though she’s been told that it probably won’t make much difference. When you come down to it, Moses is sort of like a robot, in this part of his story anyway. He just does what he’s told. Esther is a moral agent—she makes a choice she didn’t have to make. So what happened to Shira?”
“Well, she takes Aharon to his parents’ apartment building. She parks the car, helps him up the stairs, brings him into his parents’ apartment, sits for a short time with him and his distraught mother. Then she takes a cab home and goes back to her own troubles.”
I think a minute. “Eliezer,” I say. “It doesn’t follow. I can’t for the life of me figure out why you are telling me this story.”
Eliezer shakes his head. “It just sort of came to me when you cited that verse, ‘But if you remain silent at this time, reprieve and deliverance will come to the Jews from elsewhere.’ God knows why.”
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