Thoughts to Ponder Number 74
6 Adar, 5761; March 1, 2001

Megillath Esther: The Story of Human Importance

From a subjective point of view it seems that the existence and behavior of a single human being is of little importance. Except for those leaders, thinkers and scientists who really make a contribution towards the advancement (or devastation) of mankind, the vast majority of people, numbering in the billions, do not seem to make any difference in terms of the future and wellbeing of our society. If not for the fact of their numbers, they would have stayed unnoticed and the world would not have missed them if they would not have been born.

From an objective point of view, however, it seems to be very different. Suddenly every human being becomes of ultimate importance. Let us recall the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte. Letitia Ramolino, the mother of Napoleon met her future husband, Carlos Buonaparte at the cheese market in Ajaccio. Under normal circumstances, she would not have gone there since it was her brother who normally shopped for the family. However, on that very sunny day, he decided to see some of his friends and asked his sister to do the honors. He wanted to thank his friends who had just sent him some bottles of wine. They had bought the wine on a long journey to visit their uncle who had just come out of hospital after he had been hurt by a carriage in the town, Sevilla. This carriage had gone out of control because one of the horses had fallen ill, due to poisoned food that its master had fed it. This, in turn, was the result of a farmer who had sold the food to a shopkeeper who had forgotten to put it in a cool place, and it had started to rot. The fact that this food had come to this shopkeeper and not to the man the farmer would normally sell it to was due to the fact that… etc, etc.

The infinite cobweb of causes in this chain of "trivialities," to which nobody would give any significance as far as world events are concerned ultimately led to the creation of the Code Napoleon and the battle of Waterloo.

On a more day to day level, we could imagine the man who is stopped by a friend to ask him what time it is. Because of this, the former will come home one minute later. Not only are his thoughts different from what they would have been if he would not have been stopped, but also his family sees him a minute later which has its effect on how they greet him. They will meet him in a different position; there will be different smiles on their faces, and it could very well be that within this one minute something may occur that, had he been there one minute earlier, would not have happened. His little daughter may fall out of a window, and he won't be there to prevent it. Because he enters his home one minute later she fractures her head. Because of this she becomes a permanent invalid and is no longer able to get married and therefore unable to give birth to a world famous mathematician who would have radically changed our understanding of this world.

Still, this is only a partial picture. In reality, the matter is much more complicated and infinitely more differentiated. Every act, smile, cry, sneeze or silence, in fact, our very presence or absence causes an ongoing chain which may start at home but, like a pool in which one throws a little stone, it will ultimately touch a large part if not the whole of society.

Would it be possible to remove one pawn even when it is only a babysitter in one's home, within a few days all discussion in the country would be different and in a few more days it would have an impact on foreign countries and millions of people. True, nobody is indispensable, but everybody is a link in an infinite web of world affairs. Consequently nobody can ever say: I am not important. Everybody makes a difference in the overall state of world affairs. And not just in the form of a "drop in the ocean" but in every aspect. Without him everything would have been different!

But how, we should ask, are we to survive and stay sane once we know what we could cause by one little "unimportant" act? Our conversation with a friend could cause a disaster or a world revolution. The smile we give a sick person may ultimately help him, but could also be misunderstood and cause his death and the death of many others. And even if we decide to move to a forest and hide there till the end of our days, how will we know that our absence is not bringing about terrible after-effects or denying mankind much potential happiness? Indeed we do not know. The veil of uncertainty will ultimately fall in front of us, and we will find ourselves in total darkness. The reason for this is that we are clearly the father of our actions, but, once we have acted, our deeds are no longer ours. They have removed themselves from our parental authority.

In fact, it may very well be that one has only good intentions but the outcome of his deeds leads, in the end, to a disaster. In 1520, when Las Casas, a deeply religious priest in Cuba, realized that his parish had been destroyed by the Spanish, he received permission from Cardinal Ximenes to employ a few hundred black people to help him restore it. As such, this was a noble deed, he saved his parish, but he destroyed the lives of millions because he became, without being aware of it, the father of black slave labor and apartheid. Dr. Guillotin invented an axe that would substantially decrease the pain of those who had to be executed. No doubt he meant well, he could not suffer the pain of so many who had to die and tried to help them, but tens of thousands cursed his name. This is the irony of history.

This being so, what shall man do? And to what extent is man responsible for his deeds? He is not able to know the ultimate effects of his actions, so where is the distinction between responsibility and pure fate? There can only be one answer to this question: Man is only responsible for those consequences he could clearly have seen in advance. He can only be taken to task for those matters that he can see as the direct outcome of his actions. He is not responsible when unexpected external matters creep into the picture, which he could not have foreseen. More than anything else, it is his intention that counts and not so much the effect.

This is the deeper meaning of Megillath Esther. Looking carefully into the story, one realizes that matters of cause and effect are turned around in a web of surprises which nobody could have predicted. Speaking in terms of pure logic, the story should have ended in the total extermination of the Jewish people. That it did not was solely dependent on circumstances which were beyond responsible human action and prediction.

For that reason the sages remarked that "Esther" symbolizes the "hester panim," the hiding of God's face, which means nothing else than that His direct providence is only noticeable after the event. What may be seen by man as an infinite amount of arbitrary incidents, a confusing web of coincidence, is, after all, the result of God's active role in history.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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