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    “Everything is God”

    Study segment by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), Jerusalem, 6 March, 2012.

    megillah1In Jewish thinking one of the most popular books of the Bible is Esther.

    It is on my mind because this week we mark the festival of Purim, when the Esther story is narrated in lighthearted fashion and the book is read in Hebrew from a parchment scroll.

    Like every classical text, Esther has its difficulties. Foremost is the absence of the Divine name from every chapter of the story.

    True, ancient ingenuity found a hint or two, for example when Mordechai 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) – and HaMakom, “He who is in every place”, is one of the rabbinic names for God.

    Only one other Scriptural book has no explicit reference to God – Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. We might liken it to Hamlet without the prince of Denmark.

    There is actually an incidental phrase in Shir haShirim where God is mentioned: “Jealousy is as cruel as the grave: its flashes are flashes of fire, shalhevetyah, a very flame of the Lord” (8:6). Some take that word shalhevetyah literally, but it is more likely to be a metaphor.

    Biblical Hebrew has no superlative degree, no “great, greater, greatest”. The phrase “flame of the Lord” indicates something that is great even in cosmic terms: compare the description of Nimrod as “a mighty hunter before the Lord” (Gen.10:9) or Nineveh as “a great city unto God” (Jonah 3:3).

    The question of including or excluding specific reference to God resonated with me some years ago in Australia when people were debating whether the preamble to the national constitution should refer to the Almighty. I argued that even more important than a perfunctory nod to God was a nation that lived by His moral law. I said that if God’s name matters greatly, His word matters even more.

    This is why rabbinic writings put into the mouth of God the statement, “Let them forget Me, so long as they keep My Torah” (Jerusalem Talmud, Chagigah 1:7).

    Nonetheless, I suggest another approach to Esther, to Song of Songs, to life as a whole. Wherever we are, whatever takes place, we live in the Divine presence, even if we don’t spell it out clearly.

    The Psalmist says, “I place the Lord always before me” (16:8). Even if we don’t call upon His name, His presence is acknowledged when we see His deeds before us, when we are awestruck by His handiwork, when, to use Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words, we are overcome by a sense of amazed, wondering awe.

    The Chasidic pietists say, “Everything is God”. This is not pantheism, which says the world is God and God is the world. It is closer to panentheism, with its doctrine that all is in God.

    There is no place or moment devoid of the Divine. Whether it is nature, history or human life, all is in God. The miracles of human love and loyalty; the deeds of the human heart, mind and spirit; the wonder of childbirth; the first awareness of self, all are in God.

    Prominently displayed in most synagogues is an inscription derived from sources in the Talmud (B’rachot 28b), Da lifnei mi attah omed – “Know before Whom you stand”. Its message?

    The message is this: even when you don’t explicitly mention His name, you are constantly in His presence.

    This is the sub-text of the Book of Esther, the sub-text of life in the majestic universe that is the gift of the benign Creator.

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