This Purim, the capriciousness of life should teach us humility.
Megilat Esther Photo: Courtesy Shlomo Kashtan
Doesn’t it seem that life lurches from one crisis to the next? Despite all the
rules and laws we create to regulate, stabilize and give structure to our lives,
you simply never know, especially here in Israel, what’s going to hit next. Our
health, happiness and security are subject to whim, miscalculation, passion, the
sudden, unforeseen, unexpected and absurd.
We’re not really in
It’s the Itamar murders anniversary, juxtaposed this weekend
with Purim, that gets me reflecting on the existential realities and
uncertainties of life. Weekly upheavals in the Arab world, missile crises that
come and go, bolt-from-the-blue deaths by auto accident, and health frailties
that jar us from serenity add to my apprehension. We’re not really in
The capriciousness of life is exactly what Purim is all
Megilat Esther is a book of contradictions, filled with events
that are unreasonable, coincidental, seemingly pure chance. At one moment, Jews
live in security in Persia; the next, they face destruction.
threatened with execution; then, suddenly, he becomes prime
Irrational events and moods transform fear into
“Venahafoch hu” – everything gets turned upside down and
The late, great Rabbi Joseph B.
Soloveitchik taught that
even the name “Purim” (meaning “lottery” or “chance”) expresses the erratic
capriciousness of events.
Purim alerts us, he explained, to the
fickleness of life and man’s susceptibility to accidental turns of fortune –
despite the best laid plans.
But man’s vulnerability is not simply a
tragic truth, he taught.
“It is an ethical postulate that gives rise to
modesty and humility in man.... Instability serves to ennoble, to dispel
arrogance. The awareness of one’s vulnerability, that there ever lurks a
hovering threat which can transform our condition, that suddenly without reason,
man can be cast down from the throne of success to the pit of despair – should
enhance our ethical character.”
In Israel these days, such humility seems
to be in short supply.
The rich and successful, and the politically
powerful, exude a preening pride and overbearing self-confidence that leaves no
room for self-criticism or selfdoubt.
Nor for God. Israelis are, as a
rule, absolutely certain that their individual viewpoint is absolutely correct,
barring all others.
So much for the Mishna, which reminds us to “be
humble exceedingly” (Avot 4:4).
Tolerance, which stems from humility,
also remains largely a foreign concept.
So it might be a good idea to
force all our would-be leaders to hear the megila read aloud in synagogue this
week. A little humble pie would do them, and us, plenty good.
story also provides an excellent lesson, to presidents, prime ministers and
commoners, in understanding the link between Providence and human
The megila hints that beyond the intrigue of royal courtyards,
and behind the politics of an Oval Office, lies a Hidden Hand operating on a
Beyond the grasp of man’s finite mind, there is
order and purpose, a higher Divine order into which man has not been
In short, what appears random, isn’t. The “pur” (the “chance”
mentioned above) is really planned. Even now, with all the bloodthirsty,
genocidal and threatening actors around us, God is engaged. Israel at 65 –
uncertain of its identity and direction – is not alone.
saga in Shushan proves that Divine decision-making can be influenced by virtuous
and bold action; by wise leaders whose moral authority can unify and heal; and
by sincere prayer.
Leaders have the responsibility to act wisely, bravely
and honestly – even though decisive control of history lies elsewhere.
“Everything is in the hand of heaven,” says the Talmudic sage Rabbi Hanina, “but
man still possesses moral freedom” (Brachot 33b).
Thus the ultimate
calculus is beyond us. Advantage and personal benefit that we think should be
the result of a given action remain uncertain. We’re left with the moral
imperative to do right because it is right. Along with the prayer that Heaven
will approve and provide stability in our uncertain world.