Purim in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The upcoming holiday of Purim is quite unique. Not only are we actually encouraged, as part of the festivities, to make noise in the synagogue (not that we generally need all that much encouragement!), but it is the only post-Exodus event in Jewish history where events that occurred in the Diaspora are universally, annually celebrated.
Purim also presents a tantalizing and deeply profound puzzle: Does order, or randomness, rule the universe? At first glance, the events of the Purim story – a classic fairy tale if ever there was one – would appear to suggest that coincidence is the order of the day, that things “just happen,” sometimes fortuitously, sometimes not so much.
Queen Vashti falls out of favor with the king, losing her crown – as well as the head under it – while against all odds, Esther – she of the unknown lineage and “green” complexion, according to the rabbis – miraculously wins the Shushan beauty contest.
Mordecai just happens to overhear a plot against Ahasuerus, yet his reward is mysteriously deferred until the moment when the king happens to awake in the middle of the night, calling for the annals of the kingdom to be read to him.
The evil Haman builds a gallows for Mordecai, yet it is he himself who ends up hanged, after Esther reveals her true identity at just the precise moment, when a slightly inebriated Ahasuerus is in a rather generous mood.
Hollywood’s B-writers could not have concocted a more serendipitous script.
This appearance of randomness which permeates Purim is given further impetus when we consider that, of all the biblical books except the Song of Songs, God’s name is missing from Megilat Esther. Furthermore, the very name of the holiday, Purim, which means “lots,” suggests that not only did Haman rely on chance to ascertain the most advantageous date to launch his war against the Jews, but the whole chain of events is one giant raffle ticket.
Now, the issue at debate here is no frivolous intellectual exercise; it is a theological argument that has immensely important ramifications.
For if there is no order, no calculated course to human history; if events occur without any guiding hand to direct them – gently or forcefully – then of what use is human effort? Why plan and put into practice any noble endeavor, if capricious fate can totally undermine it at any moment? Why spend a lifetime trying to live up to elevated moral standards, if there is no assurance the effort will be acknowledged or accredited? And what shall we make of the notion and nature of God? If He is absent or indifferent – or worse yet, powerless – then why do we swear allegiance to Him and pray for His help? These questions are particularly pressing for anyone who has undergone a tragedy. A bereaved family desperately wants – needs – to know that the injury or death of a loved one was not in vain, that it was part of some grand plan that required suffering and sacrifice. We can, ultimately, accept pain if it is accompanied by purpose. But if it is all haphazard, then the combination of grief and senselessness can be too overwhelming to overcome.
This, then, is the great challenge that Purim throws our way. Can we discern the invisible hand of God pulling the strings, reacting to our own mortal efforts, or is our destiny dependent on lucky breaks and chance encounters? Randomness and spirituality simply cannot share the same stage.
The Megila – like all great works of art, be it sculpture, painting or poem – avoids stating the obvious, and beckons the reader to enter the narrative and judge for himself what lies in front of his eyes or below the surface. It is the very elusiveness of the Megila’s answer that entices us to challenge our own sense of faith and decide what it is that we truly believe.
Perhaps this is the source of wearing costumes or disguises on Purim. The reality of who or what animates the actors in this story – and all the stories of our lives – is purposely masked, so as to force us to engage in serious investigative work, if we are to ultimately ferret out the truth.
We are, however, given one very important clue. Of all the five megilot read throughout the year – the others being the Book of Ruth, the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes and Lamentations – Megilat Esther is the only one that is read twice, both evening and morning.
I suggest this is because one reading of the story is simply not enough. You must mull over the Megila – sleep on it, in fact – and then come back the next day and read it over again. What seemed simplistic and superficial at first reading may take on a very different, much deeper understanding in the light of day the second time around. Perspective, after all, can release a wellspring of wisdom.
This grand experience of ours – the winding, wandering path of Jewish history, the Holocaust, our return after 2,000 years to Israel, our own individual life experience – is it dependent on the roll of the dice, or is it directed, if not dictated, by the Divine? Draw your lot, dear friends, and draw your own conclusions. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; firstname.lastname@example.org