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    Purim: God is present, even in His absence

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 9 March, 2020.

    The Jewish festival of Purim is this week. Like everything in Judaism, it intensifies my feeling of God — indeed, as I get older I am ever more of a believer.

    As a child I was told by my mother that there is a God and we can talk about Him every day by saying the Shema prayer morning and evening.

    But I must admit I was puzzled about having a God who could see me while I couldn’t see Him.

    For a while, I even thought my rabbi was God — though I never told the rabbi (and I suspect he would have given me an enigmatic smile).

    Now I’m old and I don’t think so highly about some of the rabbis I know (I’m not even certain about myself), but nothing enhances my life more than knowing I am in the presence of God.

    I see Him (in a metaphorical sense) all around me. A wondrous world must have a wondrous Creator. A world where love is possible must have a beneficent Maker. The Jewish liturgy says V’chol ma’aminim, “Everything attests to God.”

    The Bible is where this is recorded — even in the Purim reading of the Megillah, the Book of Esther, where the Divine name is missing.

    Despite the light-hearted boos and bangs that punctuate the reading, the book has its serious side. Yet there is no mention of God.

    True, ancient ingenuity found a hint: when Mordecai says to Esther, “If you keep quiet at this time, relief and deliverance will come for the Jews from makom acher, another place” (5:13-14). Makom, “He who is in every place,” is a name for God, but I obviously have problems with adjective “another”!

    Apart from Esther, only one other Scriptural book lacks a reference to God — the Song of Songs.

    There is an incidental phrase, “Jealousy is as cruel as the grave: its flashes are shalhevetyah, a very flame of the Lord” (8:6). Some take shalhevetyah literally, but it is a mere metaphor. Because Biblical Hebrew has no superlatives, it uses phrases like flame of the Lord to denote something that is great in cosmic terms: Nimrod, for example, is “a mighty hunter before the Lord” (Genesis 10:9); Nineveh is “a great city unto God” (Jonah 3:3).

    When Australia debated whether the preamble to the constitution should mention God, I weighed in and argued that better than a perfunctory nod to the Almighty was a nation that lived by His moral law. I said that if God’s name mattered, His word mattered even more.

    Judaism ascribed to God the daring words, “Let them forget Me but keep My Torah.” Even if we don’t use His Name, He is there as an axiom — a fact of life. We live in the Divine Presence, even if we don’t spell it out.

    The Psalmist says, “I set the Lord always before me” (16:8). We perceive the Presence when we see His deeds, when we are awestruck by His Creation, when, in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words, we feel a sense of amazed, wondering awe.

    Chassidism says, “All is God” — but this is not pantheism, which says the world is God and God is the world. It is closer to panentheism, which says all is in God. No place or moment is devoid of Him.

    Whether we contemplate nature, history or human life, all is in God. The miracles of love and loyalty; the deeds of the heart, mind and spirit; birth. and the first awareness of self, all are in God.

    Synagogues display over the Ark (the shrine of the Torah scrolls) an inscription derived from the Talmud: Da lifnei mi attah omed — “Know before Whom you stand.” Even without His name, I am in His presence.

    This is the sub-text of both Esther and Song of Songs: God is always present, even in His absence.

    Yet life with God is not easy. Evil mars the world and we feel affronted. Like our ancestors, we confront God and challenge His moral judgment. Like Abraham we say, “Does the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” Like Moses we say, “Why have You dealt evilly with this people?”

    But here is the dilemma. As Jacob Agus puts it, “God cannot but be good and just.” We trust God even when it is difficult; we distrust man even when he claims to be our friend. Life is tension. Man lets us down; we’re not certain about God.

    But Agus is right. God must be good and just. Our way is to demand instant explanations. His is to be patient and take His time. His ways, says Isaiah, are not our ways. The rabbis say, Lu yedativ heyitiv — “If I knew Him, I would be Him.”

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