The Mystery of Hester Panim

An Old Joke

It was a deluge, the likes of which had not been seen for years. A man who lived by the river saw that he was in danger of being flooded. He prayed to G-d, “Please save me.” A few minutes later a fire truck came by and told him to get on. He said, “No, G-d will save me.” The water continued to rise until he had to flee to the second floor. Again he pleaded with G-d. A few minutes later, a boat drifted by but again he refused human help. Finally, stuck on the roof with the water swirling around him, a police helicopter threw him a rope, but the man insisted that G-d would save him. As you may imagine, he also wasn’t the best swimmer. So up in the Heavenly Court he says to G-d. “I trusted in you, why didn’t you save me?” And G-d replies,” I tried, I sent you a fire truck, I sent you a boat, I sent you a helicopter…”

Of all the books of the Bible, the Book of Esther is unique in that it does not once mention G-d directly. One might ask, “Why, then, is it considered a holy book and included in the Tanach (the complete Biblical canon)?”

To understand the importance of the Book of Esther as more than just a history of the Jewish victory over a vicious enemy, one must look at the phenomenon of Hester Panim. Literally, Hester Panim means “the hiding of the face” and refers to G-d’s presence being hidden from direct human perception. Like the sun on a very cloudy day, however, just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The story of Purim teaches us that G-d is ALWAYS involved, even when we don’t see His hand.

After a casual reading of the Book of Esther, one might think it is a heroic tale about Mordechai and Esther saving the Jewish people from Haman through diplomatic skill. After all, Esther does deftly manipulate the emotions of King Achashverosh and Haman at her private wine-parties with them. Looking deeper, however, one is struck by the overwhelming “coincidences” of the right people being at the right places at the right times to save the Jews. To follow one line of such “coincidences”:

*Esther was the beautiful niece of one of the leaders of the Jewish people.

*While women throughout the kingdom flocked to the beauty pageant, hoping to be chosen as queen, the Megillah tells us that Esther “was taken to the king’s palace” (2:8). Her beauty was noticed and she was brought, apparently by force, to the palace, for she would never have gone there of her own volition. Ultimately, she chosen to be queen.

*Because Esther is in the palace, Mordechai is able to get word to the king about the plot on his life, which was not remembered by the king until Haman’s plot was unraveling.

*If Esther had not been “taken to the king’s palace,” there would have been no “insider” to have Haman’s evil plan revoked. Even Mordechai points this out when he tells her: “Do not imagine that [you can] save yourself in the king’s palace from the fate of all the Jews. For if you indeed keep silent at this time, relief and salvation will come to the Jews from another source, and you and your father’s household will perish. And who knows that but for a time like this you are in a royal position?!”(Esther 4:13-14)

Coincidence? Divine Providence? To the scoffer, it’s the former. To the believer, it’s the Hand of G-d–Divine Providence moving behind the scenes to make certain the Jews are saved. This is Hester Panim. Therefore, the Book of Esther is not simply the story of how the Jews were saved from Haman’s evil plot–it is a guidebook for future generations on how to view the world.

What role does Hester Panim play in the Divine plan? Why would G-d choose to hide Himself from humanity? Hester Panim is actually a Divine gift that allows humanity freedom of choice. If a child is told not to eat a cookie by its mother, but the mother remains in the kitchen to watch, then the child isn’t going to take the cookie. Once mother leaves the room, though, it is the child’s free choice that determines what happens to the mother’s ruling. At the same time, when mother leaves the room, she is aware of her child’s behavior, listens for danger and is ready to jump to the rescue. So too, G-d leaves us to give us space and allows us to make our own free choices, but He is always waiting on the periphery to protect us from ultimate harm.