(Esther in the king's chamber. By Elisabetta Sirani)
For Congregation Ner Shalom
May I just say? You are all looking divine.
And appearances matter on this particular week in our Jewish reckoning of time and symbol. This was the week of Purim. A story of danger and rescue, managed in large part by the Jewish queen of Persia, Esther, whom Talmud identifies as one of the four most beautiful women ever to have lived [BT Megilah 15a]. She was graced with a kind of beauty that was hard if not impossible to resist, and she ultimately used it not for her own advancement but to save the lives of her people.
In fact, placing herself right in the king's view was, at least to some commentators, a critical element of the strategy to save the Jews. When the edict for the Jews' destruction is issued, Mordecai reaches out to Esther, the palace insider, with the dire request that she should:
לבוא אל–המלך להתחנן–לו ולבקש מלפניו על–עמה
She should come to the king to make supplication to him and to petition before him for her people. [Esther 4:8]
So the Chasidic master, Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, also known as the Berditchever, asks the question, "Why does it say 'before him?' Couldn't the text have simply said, "to petition for her people?" Why "to petition before him for her people?"
The answer might have been so that he would clearly see her beauty and his heart would warm. But the Berditchever sees the phenomenon in mystical terms. He says that when Esther enters the king's chamber, the Shechinah would enter with her. And it would then be important for her - for either Esther or the Shechinah - to be planted right smack in front of the king, so that the light of the Shechinah could melt his resistance.
So maybe we need to back up to make sure we're all on the same page or the same column of the same megillah. The Shechinah is what? It is, in Jewish mystical thought, the Divine that dwells among us. The concept is rooted in the Torah portion of a couple weeks ago where God says, "Build me a mikdash, a holy place, v'shachanti b'tocham - and I will dwell among them." [Exodus 25:8]
Shachanti - I will dwell - is the same root as shechinah - the dwelling, the residing, the abiding. Before this moment in Torah, God is a character, a personage, a personality like gods of other mythologies might be seen. God speaks to select individuals. God frightens the bejeezus out of the Egyptians and out of the Israelites too. But there isn't yet a sense of God as a presence, which might in fact be the best translation of Shechinah. God's Presence, among us.
The Shechinah (as Shechinah lore evolved) came to be understood as the aspect of God that stays close to us as a people. The Shechinah comes with us into exile. And, in fact, the Book of Esther is one of the very few books of Tanakh that takes place entirely in exile. So in a sense, the Jews of Shushan would have had an intimacy with the Shechinah, even while they might have had a more skeptical relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, the great God of the Cosmos, the fiery God of Sinai. God is never mentioned even once in the Book of Esther, as if salvation came davka without God's help. Whereas the presence of the Shechinah might be inferred in the story, the way it is inferred in our lives.
Rebbe Levi Yitzchak, the Berditchever, is confident that the Shechinah accompanies Esther intothe king's throne room, when she goes in to invite him to her apartments, to resolve with a banquet the terrible trouble that was birthed at a banquet.
Why is the Berditchever convinced the Shechinah will enter with her? Because of her clothes. He points to the language of her entrance:
ויהי ביום השלישי ותלבש אסתר מלכות
On the third day, Esther dressed in malkhut. Esther dressed in "royalty". [Esther 5:1]
What could that possibly mean? It's commonly translated as "Esther dressed in royal robes." Meaning robes of purple and crimson. But the Berditchever points then to Talmud's interpretation:
שלבשתה רוח הקדש
What she wore was the holy spirit. [BT Megillah 15a] The sages of the Talmud, who couldn't bear God's absence in the text, interpreted God right back in. And in the process they were, remarkably, presaging the idea the kabbalists would later call Shechinah. For the kabbalists, the word malkhut, "kingdom", did not just have a geographic or political meaning, but was the name of the last and earthiest of the Ten Sefirot, the nodes of divinity that each pour out a different element into the cauldron of Creation. Malkhut means "kingdom" in the sense of this being the realm under God's rule. Malkhut is Creation as we know it. Everything we have ever experienced exists in the realm of malkhut. We can intuit the other nine sefirot. But malkhut we live in. And in the kabbalistic view, malkhut is home to Shechinah. No, more: malkhut is the Shechinah. So for a kabbalist, whenever you see the word malkhut, you may dare to replace it with the word Shechinah. In which case, the megillah verse reads, "On the third day, Esther dressed in Shechinah." This is why the Rebbe was certain that when Esther entered the chamber, the Shechinah would be with her. She swept into the room, garbed in Shechinah.*1*
Maybe Esther is not unique. Maybe we all sweep into the room garbed in Shechinah whenever we are going to act in a way that brings us toward our purpose. Whether that purpose is justice or healing or tending nature or teaching or witnessing or even raising morale. Maybe there's a connection between getting close to our purpose*2* and getting close to the Shechinah. Mordecai himself suggests this when he says to Esther,
ומי יודע אם–לעת כזאת הגעת למלכות
"Who knows? Maybe it was for just such a time as this that you came to the malkhut." That you came to the kingdom. Or to sovereignty. Or to the palace. Or to this world. Or maybe it was for just such a time as this that you came to the Shechinah, or to the Shechinah's attention. [Esther 4:14]
So maybe it is Ruach Hakodesh, that holy spirit, the Shechinah, that each of us wears whenever we are acting in ways that are close to our purpose. Sometimes we can even feel it surrounding us, clothing us, when we perform those brave acts or those mundane acts that just feel right. Like we're wearing a shechinah robe, or a shechinah muumuu, or an off-the-shoulder shechinah toga.
But then sometimes the sensation of divine comes not from outside, wrapped around us, but from inside. In this week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa, God identifies an artist named Betzalel who will captain the team building the mikdash, the holy place whose construction God requested a couple weeks ago. God says,
ואמלא אתו רוח אלהים בחכמה ובתבונה ובדעת ובכל–מלאכה
"I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom and understanding and knowledge and every skill." [Exodus 31:2]*3*
The idea of the divine spirit infusing Betzalel stands in contrast, perhaps, to a conception of divinity as discrete and separate that is exhibited elsewhere in this very portion. When the Children of Israel give Moshe up for lost and demand a new god, Aharon has them remove their gold earrings. They pass them forward. He melts them down, and fashions a Golden Calf for their worship. [Exodus 32:2-4] Here the god is fashioned from the garb. When Moshe comes down from the mountain and sees this, he goes into a rage. He burns the golden calf, grinds it to powder, mixes it with water and makes the people drink it. [Exodus 32:20] This could just be some kind of punishment or trial, much like the bitter waters adulteresses are subjected to drinking in the Book of Numbers. Or it could be obedience training, like sticking a dog's snout in its own pee. Or maybe it's some symbolic messaging on Moshe's part that divinity is within you, digested, integrated, in all your cells. It is not something worn as an adornment, and removed at will.
So then, is divinity in you, as in Betzalel's case, or around you, as in Esther's? Who's wearing whom?
Maybe we wear each other. We wear Shechinah in our Esther-like moments. When we speak truth to power. When we live our purpose.
And maybe God is wearing us as well. God experiences God's self through malkhut, through our vantage point, in a serious and playful game of dress up. We are God's garb. Not just our bodies, although those are certainly the fabric that holds the garment together. But our thoughts, our loves, our longings, our losses, our musical tastes, our moments of vanity, our quirks - all these are beads on God's necklace, embroidery on God's tunic. God tries on each of us, not for a moment in a fitting room, but for our whole lives.
At the Oscars a couple weeks ago, the faux regal red carpet ritual was played out again, like every year. As is the longstanding custom, the men were asked about their careers, the women about their dresses. And the recurring question was not "What are you wearing," but "Who are you wearing?" When I think of God wearing this world as garb, I like to imagine God on the red carpet; the reporter from E Network shoving the microphone toward the divine mouth. "And so God, who are you wearing tonight?"
"Well," God replies with feigned modesty, "tonight I'm wearing Esther. And Mordecai. And Haman. And Angelina Jolie. Oh, and Myra. And Lorenzo. And Shira. And everyone else here. And everyone watching. And you.
"Oh", God continues, "might I add? You all look . . . divine."
*1* I was very happy to stumble upon this teaching of the Berditchever last week. A couple days later I found that my teacher, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, had just blogged expansively and exquisitely about this very point. You can read her piece by clicking here.
*2* I am grateful to Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen for making me think more deeply about purpose, and what engaging it feels like in the body and the spirit.
*3* In explicating the Ruach Elohim, or "spirit of God," this text fascinatingly identifies two (or three) qualities that would later be considered higher kabbalistic sefirot: chochmah, binah and their synthesis, da'at. What would a kabbalist make of this in contrast to the use of malkhut in Esther? If the spirit is in you, is it from a higher source in the Tree of Life stepladder? And if you are garbed in it, then it is malkhut, or Shechinah, representing a more bottom-up, grassrootskind of divinity?
Fine print: These drashot are made possible by my work at Congregation Ner Shalom. If they ever speak to you enough to be so moved, you are always invited to make a contribution to Ner Shalom byclicking here. (Please notate it with Itzik's Well so I know.]