Every year around this time I join dozens of members of our community and thousands of Jews from all over the country at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, an event that has accurately been referred to as America’s largest non-Haredi gathering of Jews. And it certainly is a non-Haredi gathering. While yarmulkas abound and Minyanim – scheduled and spontaneous – can be found in many corners of the cavernous meeting halls, the conference itself is all policy and advocacy, with hardly a nod to Jewish prayer as a critical ingredient of our past and future security and success.
Our community’s conference-goers are by now quite familiar with – and perhaps a bit tired of – my making note of this. We have always discussed the importance of AIPAC’s work as following in the ways of Esther, who used her privileged position to lobby King Achashverosh on behalf of the Jewish People. And we have consistently noted that Esther herself had but one pre-condition, one request she needed fulfilled before she would embark on that advocacy. She needed three days of fasting and prayer, engaged in by all of the Jewish People on her behalf, as well as by Esther herself, in advance of her lobbying efforts. She was certain that she could only succeed supported by the power of prayer.
We regularly note this with some sadness, wishing wistfully for an AIPAC conference where the government leaders serving as headline speakers are preceded by communal recitation of a Psalm, and where the day starts with Shacharis from center stage in the Verizon Center instead of in a hard to find room in a corner of the AIPAC Village. We wondered aloud whether this past summer’s humbling defeat of AIPAC’s legislative priority – blocking the Iran deal – was a result of our pulling out all the stops on our lobbying efforts without a matching commitment to prayer.
But make no mistake. The AIPAC Conference is an incredibly inspiring experience. It is nothing short of remarkable to see thousands of Jews so committed to their people so as to commit thousands of dollars and several days to come from all over the country to participate. The conference environment is filled with a palpable, positive Jewish energy, a genuine Ahavat Yisrael and commitment to its future. Indeed the event inspired a religiously unaffiliated attendee to share with a mutual friend his conference-born urge to wear a yarmulke so as to more strongly identify with his people.
Perhaps we can recast this discussion in light of an intriguing Mitzvah. The Torah (Vayikra 6:5) instructs us to regularly light the fires on the altar. This is so despite the fact that the Torah (Vayikra 9:24) describes a heavenly fire descending upon the altar at its dedication, and that according to our Sages (TB Zevachim 61b) this fire was maintained throughout the days of the Temple. Nevertheless, the Talmud (TB Yoma 21b) teaches that despite this fire that descended from the heavens, there remained a mandate to add a regular, man-made fire as well. Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 132) explained that this is because G-d chooses to be hidden in the world rather than exposed; that even when He performs miracles, He couches them within some kind of a natural cause. Indeed even the most vivid of miracles – the splitting of the sea – did not just happen; the verse (Shemos 14:21) describes how the wind was stirred until it split the sea, thus serving as something of an intermediary and a mask, blocking G-d’s hand.
As such – the Sefer HaChinuch explained – the mandate to light our own fire on the altar is a mandate to act ourselves so as to hide G-d’s hand.
To be sure, even as we hide His hand we light the fires of the altar of sacrifice to Him. In that context we are clearly not forgetting G-d’s place or role. Yet the mandate for action is for us to act in a way that moves G-d’s actions to the background.
In a sense, this contrast lies at the heart of the divide between the festivals of Purim and Pesach. Purim begins with the reading of the Megillah, the story of our salvation that does not even mention G-d’s name. While on the one hand we recognize the hidden hand of G-d guiding those events from start to finish, the highlight of the story is the dramatic human action of Esther, risking everything on behalf of her people. Mordechai’s urging of Esther to play a role in the inevitable salvation of the Jews can be seen as him essentially telling her – “G-d will save His people; it is up to you to be the human actor that hides His hand.”
Indeed following on the Megillah reading we partake in a full day of activity that continues not to mention G-d’s name but instead focuses on our own human action, reaching out to the needy and to increase friendship and community through charity and sharing gifts. We continue to use our own hand to cover for G-d, expressing and delivering His compassion for people. And that is of course one of the meanings of the Purim masquerade, recalling how G-d used our actions to hide His own face.
This continues in the period between Purim and Pesach, when Jews include in the preparations for Pesach an enormous emphasis on helping the poor. Even as we are overtaken with cleaning and shopping for ourselves, we find the space and the resources to give generously to the numerous campaigns for Maos Chittim, to provide holiday assistance for the needy. And this continues right up to the opening moments of the Seder, when we invite all who are hungry to come and eat.
And then it stops.
Then we proceed to the Hagaddah, filled as it is with G-d’s name, and absent of any mention of the actions of man. Even Moshe – G-d’s faithful servant, the Ish HaElokim (Man of G-d) – is not featured in the Hagaddah. The Hallel – not recited at all on Purim – is recited on Pesach day and night, as we note in the Hallel – “From the sun’s rising to its setting, G-d’s Name is praised!”
Pesach is the festival of the open miracles, the time when G-d instructed us (Shemos 14:13) to stand and watch as He saves us, to not hide His hand by human action.
This contrast brings to mind the well-known aphorism of Rav Yisrael Salanter, who instructed his followers to have faith in G-d when it came to their own well-being, but when it came to the well-being of others to act as if there was no G-d and as if everything depends on them. Indeed the praise of G-d and the dazzling view of His guiding hand in the world tend to leave humans standing still and watching. Yet there are times – such as in the story of Purim – when what is called for is exactly the opposite; less praise and observation of G-d’s actions, and more action on our part.
G-d must always be turned to for our every success. We continue to yearn for the day when prayer will precede and inform our every AIPAC event and lobbying effort on behalf of our people. But at the same time we can appreciate the raw power of Jews gathered to act on behalf of their people. We can learn from and be inspired by their actions, fulfilling in a sense G-d’s desire for His hand to be hidden in His world by the G-dly and generous acts of man.