02/19/2013 05:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Exodus 27:20-30:10: Ask Not What God Can Do for You...

The holiday of Purim (marked this Saturday night and Sunday) celebrates a redemption story, not unlike Passover, which follows it in a month's time. But in contrast to the Exodus narrative, God is never mentioned in the story of Purim. In the Purim story, the Jews of the Persian Empire are saved from disaster by the political and sexual maneuverings of a young Jewish queen (Esther). Why is this so?

Purim celebrates the upside-down, topsy-turvy nature of reality. People can be powerful one moment and powerless the next, the oppressed Jews can be stronger than their non-Jewish oppressors, and a woman (often portrayed as being on the receiving end in such ancient tales) can become the saving heroine. This is a holiday of masquerading within a carnival atmosphere. But it is also the holiday of upside-down theology. Purim is not primarily a celebration of the savior God. On Purim we celebrate the fact that despite our imperfections and limitations, we human beings can use our own powers to avert disaster.

In this theological framework, one can argue that to the extent that we are able to redeem ourselves, we are also able to save God.

Interestingly, this week's Torah portion begins with the instruction that Israelites provide continuous light in God's tabernacle. But why do people need to provide light to the Creator of all light?

In one rabbinic retelling of this biblical text, the people themselves express surprise at this commandment:

"The Israelites said, 'You [God] are the light of my lamp (Psalms 18:29),' [why, then, would] you ask us to bring light before you? God responded, 'It is in order to elevate you that I have asked that you make light for me just as I made light for you'" (Exodus Rabbah 36:2).

The Israelites' question is expressed as a practical matter. If God is the source of all light, what point is there in offering light to God? God's answer, however, is a relational one. God assumes the posture of the receiver so that we can be elevated to the stature of giver. God dignifies us by receiving what we can offer.

Earlier in this same rabbinic commentary, there is a story about a person with sight who leads a blind person down a road. When they reach their destination, the person with sight asks his blind companion to light candles in the room, saying, "so that you will not be indebted to me."

Later, Jewish mystics coin the expression "eating bread of shame" to describe the situation of a person who is only a receiver in a relationship. This evocative description teaches us that a meaningful relationship requires reciprocity -- with giving and receiving from both parties. It may be that after the gifts of life, God's greatest gift to humanity is becoming a receiver. In so doing, God allows us to avoid living only as "eaters of bread of shame."

According to this tradition, the gifts God receives from us are not limited to the Temple or its modern day equivalents. The greatest gift we can give to God is a life devoted through spiritual practices and material means to healing the alienation and suffering in the world. Our imperfect reality, including the fact that it can only improve if we devote ourselves to that improvement, is God's gift to us. The notion that we are called upon to engage in tikkun (restoration) is what allows for a relationship with God.

Yet even this gift must be accepted. Having been given this opportunity we must rise to become givers, a move that is not always supported by our religious culture. For example, my teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green, notes that the common reference to God as parent often evokes within us a feeling of a helpless child who looks to our parent to fulfill our needs. Rabbi Green proposes that it is important for us to approach this metaphor from the perspective of the parent, breaking out of the role of child ("Radical Judaism," p. 48). The Zohar, the great work of medieval Kabbalah, actually flips the parent metaphor on its head and says that "Israel sustains their Father in heaven" (3:7b). In both cases, it is upon us to give lovingly to God.

Still, most often in our culture God is the address for requests, for the expectation that something that I cannot control will be taken care of by a Higher or Greater Power. What if, in the spirit of Purim and our Torah reading, we adapt JFK's famous statement and ask not what God can do for you, but what you can do for God?

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.