Purim – Overconfidence
A story is told of a woman who woke up one morning to a torrential downpour with the river fast rising, threatening to flood her home. As water seeped under her door and filled the ground floor she panicked and prayed that God save her. Soon the rising water forced her to the second floor. Out the window she saw her neighbor paddling by her home in a rowboat. He motioned for her to climb aboard so he could give her a lift to dry land but she refused, confident that God would send her salvation. She was soon forced to climb onto the roof and a coast guard vessel searching for distressed residents urged her to accept their help but she refused again, in her faith that God would save her. As the water rose even higher she clung to the chimney. A rescue helicopter spotted her and sent down a line but she dismissed the helicopter as well. A few minutes later the water rose above the chimney and she drowned. She arrived before the heavenly court soaking wet and indignant. She confronted the Lord for failing to send her salvation despite her perfect faith. Frustrated, God told her He had sent her help three times but she refused to accept His help!
That was the same lady who had been late to an appointment downtown the previous week. She prayed desperately from gridlocked traffic for a parking spot near the office building she needed. Just as she was passing the building a car pulled out of a spot directly in front of the doors. She leaned out the window and shouted to God, “Never mind, I’ve found one myself.”
The Talmud asks why Esther invited Haman to the feast she was preparing for the king. What was she thinking? It seems counterproductive to invite her enemy, the man conspiring to annihilate her people, to sit with her and the king at an intimate royal feast. The Talmud (Megilla 15b) offers numerous reasons for this calculated invitation. She wanted to keep tabs on him; she wished to allay any suspicions he might have of her loyalties; she wanted to plant in the king a seed of jealously over Haman; and she wished to make Haman overconfident. All these calculations were very wise and helped in the long run to precipitate Haman’s downfall. But there was one more reason, the Talmud states, for Esther’s invitation to Haman. So that the Jews would not say “we have a daughter in the house of the king.” Esther felt that the Jews would not offer heartfelt prayers since they had some confidence that Esther, their worm in the palace, would come through for them if all else failed.
The lady in the flooded house had the opposite issue. She expected the unexpected. She was sure salvation would come through unnatural means. In the story of Esther the Jews didn’t feel so urgently the need for salvation altogether. They had an ace up their sleeve.
When God appears to us as only one of several options we tend not to take God or the situation as seriously as we should. In reality God works through many different avenues and agencies. Everything that happens, both the problems as well as the solutions, are the manifestation of God’s wisdom and will. Esther recognized the weakness of human nature and felt she had to deprive the Jewish people of their perceived security so that they would look to God as their sole source of salvation.
A story is told of a poor man who had a daughter to marry off. In those days the practice was for the bride’s family to provide for the wedding expenses. Having nothing, the desperate man turned to the Kotzker Rebbe for some help. The Kotzker Rebbe wrote a warm letter of recommendation and instructed the man to go visit Rabbi Moshe Chaim Rothenberg of Chentshin for help. When the poor man arrived at the home of Rabbi Rothenberg he showed the rabbi the letter and the rabbi read the letter and reached in his pocket and produced a rouble which he gave to the poor, and now astonished, man. What a shock! He had traveled to Chentshin with complete faith in the instructions of the Kotzker Rebbe. He had been sure Rabbi Rothenberg would provide for all the needs of the wedding and the rouble he had received wouldn’t even cover his travel expenses. He left the rabbi’s home broken-hearted and trudged down the road, at loss for what to do. After he had walked for some time he saw a wagon coming his way, overflowing with goods. The wagon stopped beside him and the rabbi stepped down and greeted the poor man warmly. “This should provide everything you need for the wedding,” he said. The poor man was elated, but he was also confused about the rabbi’s conduct. “If you had intended all along to provide me with all the wedding needs why did you wait until now to give this? And why did you give me just one rouble earlier?”
The rabbi explained that he felt the man had so much confidence in the Rebbe’s instructions that he had forgotten about God’s role in the process. The rabbi wanted to make sure he appeared only as God’s agent and not as the source of salvation. He therefore initially let the man down so that God would be back in the picture.
Esther similarly was not the source of salvation and she wanted that to be abundantly clear. She could act only in the agency of God and therefore it was necessary to dispel the hope the people had in her as a person before continuing to work on their behalf.