In the last eye of a needle

In the last eye of a needle

The Star of absence/13 - The good effort of living is all in the dedication to trying to stay small.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 26/02/2023

"To know the world, without walking out the door!
Seeing the Path of heaven, without having to look out the window. The farther you go, the less you know.
Therefore, the saints know without ever travelling, they know things without seeing them and they accomplish things without the need for action

Tao Tê Ching, XLVII

In the end, the Book of Esther generates new reflections on biblical humanism, on the nature of its characters, its economy and conflicts, where there are always at least two "dragons" present.

Once again, we have reached the end of this commentary on Esther. Nine years have passed since, on that blessed February 16, 2014, when, thanks to the risky trust shown by Director Marco Tarquinio, we began this biblical journey that we have called "Journey to the end of the night", borrowing Céline's great expression. No one thought, at first, that it would become such a long and demanding journey, winding through fourteen books of the Old Testament; a wonderful journey that, God willing, will continue. We have travelled within the dark night of the West and of the Church, between economic crisis, a pandemic, diseases and wars; but on some particularly clear nights, through the tears, we have also been able to glimpse a strip of the Promised Land on the horizon line, and it was not the case of a Morgan le Fay. We travelled standing firm and faithful in our lookout post – in the company of Isaiah and all the prophets, together with Rizpah and the many women-sentinels hidden in the Bible. Together with Esther.

Today ends the story of the young woman, who became a queen and in the end a hero who, together with her uncle Mordecai, saved her people showing great intelligence and courage and was able to have King Xerxes withdraw the decree of extermination by the cruel vizier Haman. Now, with the story coming to an end, Esther leaves the scene, and the two men who first opened the book return as its protagonists: King Xerxes and Mordecai the Jew. And in her leaving the stage empty, we can discern a decisive message that runs through many great pages of the Bible. Esther had done her job well and in the end, she returns to her regular life, within the walls of her palace and we will never see her again. Like Moses, like Noah. We do not know what happened to her afterwards, if she became a mother, if she stayed on as the wife of the pagan king. We do not know, because we do not need to know. Biblical stories are never biographies of their characters. We are only told of that page, or that line of a story that fits into a greater story. Therefore, the unfinished parts of the stories of the protagonists always speak volumes. We do not know how the story of Jeremiah ended or that of Hosea or any of the other prophets: we are not presented with their ending, nor their beginning.

We merely know one part of the work, because even a Stradivarius among the first violins in an orchestra must play when it is due, and then fall silent. This is why the Bible is not afraid to show us its characters in all their misery, in the limitations and sins of unfinished and imperfect stories. They are not ethical models to be imitated, except for their ability to get up and start over each time they fall. Hence, we must not be surprised if we find the following words in some ancient Greek manuscripts (the Byzantine text) at the end of the Book of Esther: «All the people cried out with a loud voice and said: “Blessed are you, Lord, that you remember the covenants you made with our fathers. Amen”» (Esther 10,9). This is biblical humanism, which neither cancels nor diminishes the individual while placing him within the greater context of the dialogue between God and his people. In reality it raises the individual, because those personal enterprises become a piece of a discourse so important as to reveal themselves as infinite and thus reach our soul in which the stories also become ours and that infinity continues to expand into an infinite of a "higher order" .

The Hebrew text, on the other hand, ends in an anti-climax, with a tenth chapter composed of only three verses: «King Ahasuerus laid a tribute (tax) on the land and on the coastlands of the sea… Mordecai the Jew… sought the welfare of his people and spoke peace to his whole race» (Esther 10,1-3). The economy makes a comeback, even taxes arrive, and we find the great wealth of Xerxes with which the book first opened (Esther 1,4). The Bible is very fond of speaking in the words of the economy, simply because it loves life. Hence, it knows that life is many things, but also, and above all to the poor, it is economy: bread, food, work. The biblical economy is not the oikonomia of the Greeks; it is not the laws (nomos) of the home (oikos). In biblical humanism, economics is also and above all a language of God, where wealth is a word of blessing. This "economy of salvation" eventually grew to become too important, and so the Bible itself made sure it inserted devices of self-defence from its own religion of prosperity into itself. These devices are called Job, Ecclesiastes, the Shabbat and the prophets. Together, they have all contributed to softening and relativizing the religious language of the economy to the point of telling us the opposite truth. That the poor are the favourites of YHWH, that wealth can easily become an idol and that the Messiah, always and forever awaited, will bring about a new economy where all will be shared in communion and the poor will finally be redeemed. However, during exile and in defeat, the Bible learned above all that there is a blessing in littleness: it is the blessing of the small remnant, the bliss of the defeated and the poor, the happiness of the mustard seed and of the small flock.

In the last chapter in the Greek version of the Book of Esther (LXX) we find this beautiful sentence: «A little fountain became a river, and there was light, and the sun, and much water: this river is Esther, whom the king married, and made queen» (Esther 10,3c/15,6 Apocrypha, Greek text). In the beginning, Esther was but a small fountain, in the end she became a great river. As we have now seen. However, the Esther that most conquered and moved us is not the impetuous mass of water in chapter nine, when it has become powerful and perhaps even seduced by that almost omnipotent power. In fact, the question that the king, her husband, repeats to her: «Now what is your petition? It shall be granted to you» (Esther 9,12) could indicate a subtle form of corruption, because in that instance Esther seems to forget that she had achieved everything not through her strength as a queen but through her weakness as a victim (I thank my friend Anouk Grevin for this and many other insights). Thus, the Esther we wish to remember is the fragile young woman who says «And if I have to die, I will die» (Esther 4,16), who then faints in front of the king and acts out of fidelity to a mysterious voice, both soft and incredibly potent. She is the small spring that has become infinite without becoming large; suggesting that the only good path we have in life is to do whatever is possible in order to stay small, to preserve something of the innocence of our youth. Herein lies all the good effort of living, trying to stay small and in the end being able to pass, without realizing it, through the eye of the needle found in the hands of the last angel.

Once again, we find an important clue in the words of Mordecai in the Greek text: «And the two dragons are myself and Haman» (Esther 10,3d/15,7 Apocrypha, Greek text). Here the text is referring to Mordecai's dream from the first chapter: «And behold two great serpents came forth ready for conflict» (Esther 1,1e). An important detail and explanation. Although Mordecai plays the good part in this tragedy, he is actually a "dragon" as well. The text hides it from us throughout the book, but in the end, it reveals it to us. More often than not, in any given war there is more than one bad and terrible dragon. Those who fight against the dragon tend to forget it, convinced that they are playing the part of St. George, but in the end, the truth is always revealed. However, the Bible is much wiser than we are and tells us this profound and often uncomfortable but very useful truth in order to understand the conflicts, the wars and the dragons of our own stories and empires.

Finally, the (Greek) conclusion of the book is also important: «In the fourth year of King Ptolemy and Cleopatra, Dositheus, who claimed to be a priest and a Levite, and Ptolemy his son, brought this letter concerning the Purim to Egypt, claiming that it was the authentic letter translated by Lysimachus, son of Ptolemy, resident of Jerusalem» (Esther 10,3l). This Ptolemy is probably Ptolemy VIII, so we find ourselves sometime around 114 BC. The author tells us that the Greek text of the book was found in Egypt, in a community of the diaspora, and had arrived from Palestine. From the Second Book of Maccabees we know that «In the same way Judas also collected all the books that had been lost on account of the war that had come upon us, and they are in our possession. So if you have need of them, send people to get them for you» (2 Maccabees 2,14-15). The Book of Esther is perhaps one of these books that "someone" from Egypt fetched from Jerusalem, a book saved during the many escapes and wars. Someone kept it and thanks to him or her, we have Esther. The Bible is also a great history of safekeeping, a hymn to the care of the word, of words and of books. Every librarian, every person who creates and maintains a private or public library belongs in the Bible, even without knowing it.

We decided to name this commentary on Esther "The Star of Absence". The name Esther means star in Persian; the word absence refers to the name of God, which does not appear in this book. Absence of the name, not the absence of God. Because the biblical God is present above all in his absence. In the Book of Job, for example, God is more present in Job's desperate questions than in the answers that God gives him. If we wanted to make a selection of the most spiritual pages present in the Bible, we would choose the words and gestures by men and women: Anna's prayer, the Magnificat, Ruth's song of fidelity for Naomi and the absurd fidelity of Hosea. Furthermore, the entire psalter where we find God in the screams and cries of crushed and suffering men who get no response, Isaiah's Immanuel and Ezekiel’s tongue stuck to his palate. Because the biblical God is the first one to activate processes without occupying spaces, without occupying our space. He makes room for us because we are his children, free and beautiful like Esther, who, when greeting her; thank her one last time for having taught us about the Bible and about life.

And together with Esther, I thank each and everyone of you dear readers who, once again, have accompanied us along the way. A thank you that is both the same and different every time, because we and the world have changed and are in fact different. Thanks to Marco Tarquinio, because each article is born and grows within the generative dialogue between us. A dialogue that has never stopped in all these years and continues in the emails, letters and comments received from you readers, always turning into precious raw material for my written pages. Next Sunday we will return to the economy, the other part of the soul of my work. We will talk about the economy because we too, like the Bible, love life, especially the poor. I find that my vision of the economy changes after each new meeting with a biblical character, taking on the smell and colour of the stories that have been discovered and told. Who knows what became of Esther?! Another good reason to say thank you, and until we meet again.

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