After Queen Esther’s successful negotiation with the King, the Jewish people move from the threat of extermination to the stars of a procession. Chapter 9, Verse 16 teaches us, “The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor.” [emphasis added, JPS Tanakh, 1999]. Some translations have it as “dignity.” The celebration had to save the body and restore the soul.
Wouldn’t it have been enough if we were just not killed physically? Would that have qualified as a Dayenu? Apparently not. The text says we needed honor and dignity also. Not being killed is a gift we can absorb by ourselves, better with people, but we can definitely absorb the good news ourselves. Honor and dignity reflect our interactions with others. Honor and dignity largely reflect how we are seen by others which, in turn, influence how we see ourselves, and how we interact with others.
That interaction is lacking in The Book of Esther. Esther is told to keep quiet about herself, to conceal her identity. Mordecai, himself, hangs out at the gates of the city, not in the city. And G-D? G-D does not even appear in The Book of Esther. The Psalms are full of pleas to G-D not to forsake us, and not to abandon us. Yet, when we are about to be annihilated in Persia, G-D is not even mentioned in the book. When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Z”L, was confronted on the Shoah with, “Where was G-D,” his response was, “Where was man?”
Because Esther is told not to reveal herself that she is Jewish, we have a glimpse of the lack of dignity and honor the Jews of Persia felt. Having to conceal your identity is isolating yourself, is being lonely. Loneliness is the epidemic of our age. Cigna Insurance recently published a major study on the epidemic of loneliness in America.
It seems that we used to be more concerned about offsetting loneliness. We could hug and touch more easily. The late psychologist, Dr. Leo Buscaglia, had his speeches featured on PBS Pledge Week shows in the 1980’s. Fortunately many are preserved on YouTube. Go watch them now Go see why he called himself, “The Hug Doctor.” His prescription was simple: go touch someone, in many ways. Why did “Reach Out and Touch Someone” work as an advertising theme for AT&T in 1987 but today these companies find it necessary to talk about how much data space you receive from them? More recently, in April 2015, The Hospitalist published an article, “Why Compassion in Patient Care Should Matter to Hospitalists.” Hospitalists come on the scene for a brief point in our lives. Compassion at that time can make a really big difference. We know that. We are taught that. As chaplains, we, too, come on the scene for only a brief period of time. Yet, compassion has a prominent place in our toolbox. “Judaism has always viewed compassion, or rachmanus, as a definitive value. The Talmud goes so far as to say that one can identify a Jew by observing whether they are compassionate or not., cf. www.jccmaccabigames.org.)”
Sacred aging is when we help others to maintain their dignity by simple gestures. It might be a facility’s staff person who straightens a client’s gown or robe before our visit. Holding a hand, gently, with two hands in a protective pose, communicates dignity. Hearing a client repeat with the freshness of hearing the story for the first time, communicates dignity.
The gestures that communicate dignity are inter-personal gestures, one person to another. Perhaps that is another explanation of why The Book of Esther needs to be in the Jewish Bible without G-D being in the book. The “Jews had honor/dignity because a procession was given for them, because other people saw the procession and cheered them. It was inter-personal, one person to another. It was okay for G-D to be watching…and probably smiling.
[ Purim this year falls on March 20-21, 2019)
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.