Confronting An Absence

Both Parashat Tetzaveh and the Book of Esther are missing some central characters.

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It's All You

The 16th century commentator Moshe Alshekh suggests that this repeated double emphasis is God's way of saying to Moses, "It's all really you. You have a greater share in it than anyone. All fulfill themselves through you" (cited in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, 1980, p. 526). Perhaps such language means to tell us that Moses is not absent at all. Rather, his presence is momentarily diminished so that other leaders can step forward to serve the broader needs of the community.

Just as we can see Moses as a behind the scenes mover in the parashah, so too, can we see God as filling a similar role in the Purim narrative. While many interpret the Purim story as an instance when the Jews achieved victory through their own actions-without waiting for divine intercession-the classic rabbinic interpretation is that God was hidden from view, but not absent. In BT Chullin 139b, the Rabbis made this point through a biblical proof text, asking: "Where is Esther indicated in the Torah? In the verse "I will surely hide (astir) My face" (Deuteronomy 31:18). The Hebrew word astir ("I will hide") serves as a wordplay on Esther's name.

book of esther

God's name does not appear
in the Book of Esther

We can extend the wordplay even further by considering that the Hebrew word megillah shares the same root as the verb "to reveal" (g-l-h). Thus, the Book of Esther can be read playfully as "revealing the hidden." God's presence is revealed through Mordecai's conviction and Esther's courage. God's presence is revealed in the triumph of good over evil, in the flawed but ultimately responsible actions of human beings.

In a typical Purim twist, the biblical text also reinforces the presence of God's absence by pointing out the consequences of the absence of God's presence. The story opens with a drunken debauchery hosted by King Ahasuerus, where "he displayed the glory of his kingdom and the richness of his magnificent splendor for many days, for 180 days" (Esther 1:4).

The words used to describe the "glory" and "splendor" of his kingdom are the same words, kavod u'tiferet, that are used in Tetzaveh to describe the priestly garments (28:2, 40; there translated as "dignity and adornment"). In tetzaveh, the lavish garments are designed to serve and honor God. In Esther, the King's wealth is evidence of his corruption. The midrash draws an even more powerful connection by claiming that the riches of Ahasuerus' kingdom were made up of the spoils of the Temple, including the priestly garments themselves (Ester Rabbah 2.1).

The Purim message that sometimes gets lost in all of the revelry is that a sense of God's presence in the world, even if hidden and obscure, gives us the strength and moral purpose to cope with uncertainties and imperfections. Parashat Tetzaveh paints a picture of the detail and exacting effort it took for the Israelites to feel God's presence in their midst. Today, we have no priests and no Temple. The only vestige we have of this experience is the ner tamid, the eternal light, the first thing that God instructs Moses to establish in the opening verses of the parashah. This light has come to symbolize the light of Torah. For us, then, the glory and splendor of God's presence must be felt through the study of Torah and the constant striving to live in its light.

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Lisa Grant

Dr. Lisa Grant is an Associate Professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College in New York City.