By Erica Brown
When I cook for Shabbat, I find that – much like exercise – music makes fast work of the tasks. I will usually turn to my go-to songs, something from Queen or Motown, to speed up the work. In this spirit, I asked Alexa, my only company in the kitchen that day, to play “I Say a Little Prayer.” I was going for the Dionne Warwick 1967 original, although Aretha Franklin also does a bang-up job with the lyrics. Perhaps I made a mistake but Alexa, with her pretend not-to-have-a robotic-voice responded, “I do not recognize that song. But would you like to say a little prayer?”
I have never davened with Alexa – although we’ve been through a lot together – and I was a little blindsided by this strange question. What does one say when a voice controlled smart speaker asks you to participate in a spiritual practice honed through millennia of practice?…Yes. So Alexa led me in a short, universalistic prayer and I said “Amen.” If you can’t make it to shul, feel free to try this at home.
I was thinking about this unusual interaction when contemplating the lack of prayer in the Book of Esther. No one prays. Not Esther. Not Mordechai. Not the King. And not Vashti, who could have used a little prayer or two. It’s so odd to have a biblical book with a fabulous heroine at its center who utters not one word to God about her predicament. Of course, there is the small matter that God also does not appear in the book either. The traditional response to existential threat is to reach out to God with words, with pleas and promises, with hopes for redemption.
This may explain why in another non-canonized version of Esther, the one that appears in the Apocrypha – a collection of works generally not studied by traditional Jews – we have an entire chapter devoted to Esther’s prayer. Here are a few poignant excerpts to explain her motivation for prayer and to give the flavor of Esther’s petition:
Queen Esther also, being in fear of death, resorted unto the Lord: And laid away her glorious apparel, and put on the garments of anguish and mourning: and instead of precious ointments, she covered her head with ashes and dung, and she humbled her body greatly, and all the places of her joy she filled with her torn hair.
In her private chambers, Esther, away her finery, appeared before God in a state of humility and vulnerability, communicated that whatever she may look like on the outside does not reflect the turmoil on the inside. She was afraid of her own death and devastated by the fate of her people. She opens her mouth to pray and words tumble out that suggest her loneliness and commitment to one God, trapped in the heart of a palace full of pagan worshipers. “And she prayed to the Lord God of Israel, saying, “O my Lord, You are our only King: help me, desolate woman, who has no helper but You. For my danger is in mine hand.”
Near the prayer’s end, Esther gets specific about her needs, asking for the right words so that God can change the heart of a human king, bending his mind towards justice. “Put eloquent speech in my mouth before the lion: turn his heart to hate the one who fights against us, that there may be an end to him and anyone like him.” As Esther concludes, she stresses that she has not enjoyed one day in the palace, making sure God knows that all of the pomp and circumstance of royal life have meant nothing to her. Only God matters. Only her people matter. “I have had no joy since the day your servant was brought here, only in You, O Lord God of Abraham.”
The prayer is very beautiful and only highlights the question of why such a formal act of prayer does not appear in our Masoretic version of Esther. I don’t have a good answer, but I have a realistic one. Esther is a book about the upper echelons of diaspora life, a bureaucracy dominated by two contradictory forces: rigid laws and random tempers. Prayer against such forces rarely works. Esther hides everything about her identity, just as she is instructed, and one of those identifying markers is the act of prayer. Those of us who pray regularly have often been in situations where we say our own tefilot – our prayers – hidden in full view, aware that any onlookers would find such spiritual behaviors in our strong secular culture strange. Open prayer is a sign of religious confidence. Such luxuries were not afforded to Esther in state of exile.
And the fact that there is no record of Esther’s prayer does not mean that she did not pray. Another Esther I know, a friend, told me that when she was in a time of personal crisis, she walked around her house and at work saying, “God help me find an answer. God help me find an answer.” In this constant dialogue with God, what prayer is at its best, she actually found her answer. In a posture of humility and dependence, my friend Esther created a state of intentionality and openness to hear solutions to a difficult challenge.
Esther has taught me so many lessons. Sometimes, given the circumstances, we can’t pray. Sometimes we can’t stop praying. And sometimes Alexa prays with us!
Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at The George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. He latest book is The Book of Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile (Koren).