(This is an edited version of a previous essay)
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 well-being of our society. If not for the fact of their numbers, they would have remained unnoticed and the world would not have missed them had they not been born.
An objective point of view, however, reveals something 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, Carlo Buonaparte at the cheese market in Ajaccio. Under normal circumstances, she would not have gone there since it was her brother who usually shopped for the family. However, on that very sunny day, he decided to see some 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 hit by a carriage in the town of 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 begun to rot. The fact that this food had come to this particular shopkeeper and not the man whom the farmer would normally sell it to was because of etc. etc.
The intricate web of circumstances in this chain of “trivialities,” to which no one 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 who asks 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 had he not been stopped, but his family sees him a minute later and that affects how they greet him. They will be in different positions and have other expressions on their faces. 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 will not be there to prevent it. Since he enters his home one minute later, she fractures her head. As a result, she becomes a permanent invalid and is no longer able to marry and give birth to a world-famous mathematician who would radically change our understanding of this world.
Still, this is only a partial picture. In reality, the matter is much more complicated. Every act, smile, cry, sneeze or moment of silence – in fact, our very presence or absence – causes an ongoing chain that may start at home but, like the rippling effect of a pebble thrown into a pond, will ultimately touch a large part if not the whole of society.
If one pawn were removed, even if it is only a babysitter in one’s home, within a few days all discussion in the country would be different and after a few more days it would have an impact on foreign countries and millions of people. True, nobody is indispensable, but everyone is a link in the intricate web of world affairs. Consequently, no one can ever say: I am not important. Everyone makes a difference in the overall state of world affairs – not just in the form of a “drop in the ocean” but in every aspect. Without him, everything would be different!
But how, we should ask, are we to survive and stay sane once we know the power of even one small, “unimportant” act that we do? Our conversation with a friend could cause a disaster or world revolution. The smile we give a sick person may ultimately help him, but it could also be misunderstood and cause his death and the death of many others. And even if we decide to live in a forest, hiding there until the end of our days, how do we know that our absence does not result in terrible after-effects, or deny mankind much potential happiness? Indeed, we do not know. The cloud of uncertainty will ultimately descend upon 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 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, without being aware of it, he became the father of black slave labor and apartheid. Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin invented an ax 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 he tried to help them – but tens of thousands cursed his name, even though he was opposed to the death penalty. Such is the irony of history.
This being so, what should man do? And to what extent is man responsible for his deeds? He is unable to know the ultimate effects of his actions, so where is the distinction between responsibility and pure fate? There is just one answer to this question: Man is responsible only for those consequences he could clearly have seen in advance. He can be taken to task solely for those matters that he can see as the direct outcome of his actions. He is not responsible when unexpected matters creep into the picture, events 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 Megillat 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 this did not happen was solely dependent on circumstances beyond responsible human action and prediction.
For that reason the sages remarked that Esther symbolizes hester panim, the hiding of God’s face, which means nothing other 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 in fact the result of God’s active role in history.