NOTE: We will be discussing this idea at our Shabbat Limmud study group this coming Shabbat morning, March 15 at 9 a.m. at Beth Israel. All are welcome.
It is traditional on two holidays to add the prayer: “Al HaNisim”, “For the Miracles” to the Amida. On Hanukkah and on Purim, the prayer is inserted into the Amida in the section known as Thanksgiving. Each day we thank God “for the miracles that are around us always” but on these holidays, we make special mention of the miracles that God has performed, describing the story of the miracle in detail. (It should be noted that many have adopted the tradition of saying Al HaNisim on Israel Independence Day as well).
The Hanukkah Al HaNisim describes in great detail God’s role in bringing victory for the Maccabees. The prayer is written from a very “God-centered” perspective: “You stood by Your people…You defended them…You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…” In this formulation, the Maccabees are the instrument by which God insures the survival of the people but they would never have been able to succeed on their own. In fact, while Al HaNisim acknowledges that the Maccabees were “pure in heart”, the prayer doesn’t give them much credit at all.
The Al HaNisim prayer for Purim also takes a very “God centered” perspective: “You, in your great mercy thwarted his (Haman’s) plans, frustrated his plot and visited upon him the evil he planned to bring on others. ”
This prayer has always struck me as particularly problematic. As uncomfortable as I might be seeing the Maccabees’ courage and passion minimized by the words of the Hanukkah Al HaNisim, I do not understand at all how the Rabbis could take the story of Purim, which is all about the courage of Mordecai and Esther and reduce their role to the simple statement: “In the days of Mordecai and Esther in Shushan…:”, God saved the people.
It is stunning that given that Megillat Esther never mentions the name of God and celebrates the courage of the heroes of the story, the Rabbis would have downplayed their role to an incidental comment while giving God all of the credit for the salvation of the Jews of Shushan.
It is clear from this and certainly from other traditions as well (such as the Talmudic emphasis on the story of the “miracle of the oil” on Hanukkah rather than emphasizing the victory of the Maccabees) that the Rabbis had an agenda of focusing on divine miracles rather than the role of humans in the redemption of the Jewish people. But, here, regarding Purim, it is especially difficult to understand what the Rabbis saw as a Divine miracle.
While there are rabbinic legends about the roles that angels had in orchestrating the finale to the story (Michael is credited with pushing Haman onto the bed that Esther was lying on, an act which resulted in his being hanged), the story is clearly a human story of courage, of taking risks for one’s people and of standing up against tyranny. One can only wonder why the Rabbis who included Al HaNisim in the liturgy might have chosen to downplay the human element of this story.
I think that this is an issue which deserves a great deal of thought. Even those who believe, as I do, in a God of creation and a God who continues to inspire and teach us must focus on our human abilities to affect the world around us rather than wait for God to save the day. According to a beautiful midrash about the Exodus, God says to Moses at the Sea: Why are you standing there screaming out to me? The hour waits only for you. Move the people forward”. Similarly, even if one believes that Mordecai and Esther were inspired by their Creator to perform courageous acts and to have faith in the future of their people, they still had to take action and they deserve to be remember for their efforts.
I believe that there is a miracle reflected in the Purim story. That is the miracle of the creation of the human being, capable of thinking, feeling and acting courageously. We should thank God for that miracle every day. But, we should also recognize our fellow human beings who use the spirit of God within them to perform actions that are deserving of honor and praise.