Purim, the Battle of Waterloo and the guillotine

Deeper meaning in the Book of Esther.

March 4, 2015 21:09

YOUNGSTERS BROWSE at a costume shop on the capital’s Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

At first glance, it seems that the existence and behavior of a single human being is of little importance. Barring those leaders, thinkers and scientists who actually contribute toward the advancement or devastation of mankind, the vast majority of people, numbering in the billions, do not seem to make even a dent in terms of the future and well-being of our society. If not for their numbers, they would have remained unnoticed and unmissed by the world had they not been born.

A closer look, however, reveals something quite different. Suddenly, every human being is of ultimate importance. Let us recall the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte. Letizia Ramolino, Napoleon’s mother, met her future husband, Carlo Buonaparte, at the cheese market in Ajaccio, Corsica.

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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 meet some friends and asked his sister to do the honors. He wanted to thank his buddies who had just sent him a few bottles of wine.

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They had bought the wine while on a long journey to visit their uncle who had just come out of hospital after having been hit by a carriage in the town of Seville. This carriage had gone out of control as one of the horses had fallen ill, due to poisoned food that its master had fed it. This, in turn, was the result of negligence on the part of a shopkeeper, who had bought the food from a farmer and had forgotten to put it in a cool place, so it had begun to rot. The fact that this food had come to this particular shopkeeper, and not to the man whom the farmer normally dealt with, was because... and so it goes, on and on.

The intricate web of circumstances in this chain of “trivialities,” to which no one would attribute any significance as far as world events are concerned, ultimately led to Napoleon’s birth, the creation of the Napoleonic Code, and the Battle of Waterloo, which fatefully changed much of European history.

On a more day-to-day level, let us imagine a man stopped by his 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 could have occurred that had he been there one minute earlier would not have happened. His little daughter might have fallen out of a window, and he would not have been 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 – may cause an ongoing chain that might start at home but, like the ripple effect of a pebble thrown into a pond, could ultimately touch a large part if not the whole of society.

If one actor on the stage of life were removed, even if only a babysitter in one’s home, within a few days all discussion in the country could be different and, after a few more days, it could 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 global affairs – not just as a “drop in the ocean,” but in every aspect. Even without just one individual, everything may be different! BUT HOW are we to survive and remain sane once we know the power of even one small “unimportant” act? Our conversation with a friend could cause a disaster, or a world revolution.

The smile with which we greet a sick person may ultimately help him, but could also be misunderstood and cause his death as well as that of many others. And even if we decide to live alone in a forest, hiding there until the end of our days, how do we know that our absence wouldn’t result in terrible after-effects or deny mankind much potential happiness? Indeed, we cannot 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 parents of our own 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, yet the outcome of his deeds leads to disaster. In 1520, when Bartolomé de las Casas, a deeply religious priest in Cuba, realized that his parish had been destroyed by the Spanish, he received permission from Cardinal Ximénes to employ a few hundred black people to help him restore it. In itself, this was a noble deed; he saved his parish. But he destroyed the lives of millions, because he unwittingly became the father of black slave labor and apartheid.

French physician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed the use of a device that would substantially decrease the pain of those who were sentenced to death by decapitation. Even though he didn’t invent the guillotine (the actual inventor was Antoine Louis), and in fact opposed the death penalty, his name became an eponym for it. No doubt he meant well – he could not suffer the pain of so many and tried to help them – but tens of thousands cursed his name.

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 direct consequences that he could clearly have seen in advance. He is not held accountable when the unexpected creeps into the picture, events he could not have foreseen. More than anything else, it is his intention that counts.

This is the deeper meaning of the Book of Esther. Looking carefully into the story, one realizes that matters of cause and effect are entangled in a web of surprises that nobody could have predicted. In terms of pure logic, the story should have ended with the total extermination of the Jewish people.

Had Achashverosh been able to sleep that famous night, he would not have seen the book of chronicles and Mordechai would not have been in a position to save the Jews (Esther 6:1). That they were indeed rescued may be attributed to the royal physician’s neglecting to give Achashverosh a sleeping tablet.

For this reason, the Sages remarked that Esther symbolizes hester panim (the hiding of God’s face), which means that from the perspective of Jewish tradition, God’s providence is only noticeable after the event. What may be seen by man as an infinite number of arbitrary incidents, a confusing web of coincidence, could in fact be the result of God’s active role in history. At the same time, we are told that man exercises freedom of choice. If so, how could it have been God’s providence? This is one of philosophy’s famous enigmas.

The author is the dean of the David Cardozo academy.

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