Night vision

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
–A Midsummer Night’s Dream (V:i)

I was reminded of this Shakespearean passage tonight when I came across a brief excerpt from the Pachad Yitzchak (R. Pinchas Hutner) about the connection between Purim and Peseach. R. Hutner comments that in a leap year, Purim always falls out in Adar Bet so that it remains close to Pesach. R. Hutner then goes on to explain that Purim and Pesach are connected in that both are ways of getting to know the “Anochi” [the I AM] of God. To contrast these two ways of coming to know God, he uses the metaphor of a person stumbling around in the darkness and trying to recognize a shape before him — the very same metaphor invoked by Shakespeare above.

Pesach, says R. Hutner, is like the person who shines a flashlight (k’li or) in order to identify the shape before him. He holds up the light, and immediately he is able to apprehend the image. In the same way, the miracles of Pesach are overt and explicit; we are hit over the head (ten times!) with evidence of God’s presence. God’s outstretched arm is readily apparent in Egypt; the spotlight is upon Him as He works wonders in the eyes of Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and His own people.

But Purim, says R. Hutner, is like the person who has no flashlight and must therefore use “chush acher milvad chuch ha-re’aya,” another sense besides sight. This night traveler needs to rely on a sort of sixth sense to intuit the identity of the presence before him. In the same way, we sense God’s presence in the Purim story only intuitively and indirectly. God is never mentioned in the megillah. The miracle of Purim is not one of divine intervention — there are no catastrophic plagues or dramatic sea-splittings. Paradoxically, God can be found in the Purim story only through “haster astir,” the concealing of the divine presence. It is in the absence of God that we intuit His presence.

To know God in the Pesach/flashlight way is to live with 100% certainty of His presence. It is to live in a world of absolute black-and-white, where everything has its reason and everything is clearly part of a larger providential plan. It is, I would say, how you lived: You davened three times a day every single day; you talked to God openly and regularly; you saw God’s presence before you at all times. We would be sitting at the dinner table when we’d hear the siren wail of an ambulance passing by, and your lips would automatically begin making their silent motion. “What are you saying,” I once asked. “I am asking God to make sure that the person in that ambulance will be OK,” you told me. At other times, I’d try to talk to you and you’d ask me to wait because you were in the middle of talking to God — and then I’d notice that your lips were moving, and I’d wait patiently and reverently for you to finish. Oh, how pious is my husband, I thought — God is always standing readily before him cast in a beam of light.

For me, it was never like that. I knew God–and I continue to know God–only sometimes, and only in the shadows cast by other people and other presences. When I see God, it is never because He is standing before me like a deer in the headlights — it is because I sense something that is ever so slightly different, as if the contours of the world have been altered ever so slightly. Unlike you, I do not have conversations with God on a regular basis — but sometimes I feel Him when I find myself dancing to an Anim Zemirot tune while putting away the chairs after shul. And sometimes I feel him when I discover a fascinating connection between poetry and Gemara. And sometimes–many times–I felt Him when looking into your eyes, oh you who are no longer here.

One time you asked me if I was ready to daven, and I said, “I’d so much rather finish this chapter of Don Quixote. I’m skipping maariv.” And you became visibly upset, perhaps even agitated. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “I just can’t relate to a person who thinks it is more important to read Don Quixote than to pray to God.” If only I had the courage to tell you what I know now — that God, for me, was more likely to be found in the pages of Don Quixote that evening. My God is the God of haster astir, but He is no less real than yours.

Of course, I am thinking of you this Purim, the day I intuitively sensed that you no longer wanted to be my husband. And of course, I will think of you this Pesach, the day you told me in no uncertain terms–as I stood in the kitchen holding up a half-rotten apple–that you no longer wanted to be married to me. I sense your presence in the shadows everywhere I go. But deep down, there is a part of me that knows that things can become their opposites, and that even after great pain there is light again. Ken tih-yeh lanu.

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