Thursday, March 13, 2014

Purim 2014

Purim is unusual in many different ways among the holidays of the Jewish year, but foremost among those ways has to be the festival’s twin themes of obscurity and arbitrariness.

The former is the one that people seem to notice naturally and easily. Queen Esther appears to be a pretty Persian girl who won a beauty contest, but she is really a Jewish girl whom Providence has set in place to save her people from destruction. Her uncle Mordechai appears to be some old guy hanging around the palace gate, but is really a watchful agent of redemption in his own right whose presence at the gate serves to provide Esther within the royal compound with a counterpart on the outside. Haman presents himself to the king as a zealous patriot concerned only with the king’s honor, but is actually a petty, mean-spirited blowhard whose motivation has solely to do with his personal need for self-aggrandizement. Even God’s watchful attendance of the events as they unfold is subtle and inconspicuous—the much-trumpeted detail that God’s name does not appear in the Book of Esther is meant to signal, not God’s disengaged absence from the events related in the narrative, but the subtlety of how things really do work in the world almost all the time: for every time a body of water parts in two to allow God’s people to pass between its watery walls (and there are, by the way, two instances in the Bible of that happening, not one), God intervenes in human affairs countless other times unobtrusively almost to the point of imperceptibility. With that theme, moderns can easily identify.

But I would like to write today about Purim’s other unique theme, the one that seems much less regularly to attract people’s attention or easily to suggest its worth as a spiritual value. Arbitrariness, after all, has a poor reputation in the world out there—perhaps not as poor as its even less esteemed first cousins, indecisiveness and equivocation, but poor nonetheless…and the last thing anyone would normally expect to be featured prominently in a book that purports to be “about” God’s forceful, if understated, role in human affairs in general and in Jewish history in particular is the concept of randomness or arbitrariness. And yet...there it is. The very name of the holiday itself is meant to be suggestive of the concept: the word purim is presented as a Persian word in the biblical text, which immediately pauses to translate it into “real” Hebrew: “In the first month, that is the month of Nisan, of the twelfth year of King Aḥashveirosh’s reign, he cast pur—what is called goral in Hebrew—before Haman, passing from day to day and from one month to the twelfth month, the month of Adar.”  Purim is just the plural of pur, just as one throws lots (also in the plural) by putting a lot of lots in the lottery.

There’s a lot packed into that little verse. (Hah!) Who the “he” is who cast the lots is not obvious, although we can easily enough imagine the presence in the palace of some official augur whose job description included being in charge of that specific task. But what the pur itself was, we are clearly not expected to know—that’s why the text immediately translates the term into “real” Hebrew. But what exactly is a goral? That too is part of the riddle. And hidden in the answer to that simple question is a key to unlocking the greater meaning of Purim…and particularly for post-moderns like ourselves unsure where exactly to seek evidence of God’s governance of the world.

The word goral appears seventy-four times in Scripture.  Mostly, it denotes a technique to make a simple choice between two things by not formally making one at all. On Yom Kippur, a goral is cast to determine which of the two goats is to be the people’s sin offering and which is to be sent off to Azazel, the wilderness from which it will not return and in which its death will atone for the unknown, thus unacknowledged, sins of the people. The details were simple. Two pieces of ebony wood (eventually these were replaced with lots made of gold)  were put in a wooden box called a kalpi that was large enough for the High Priest to put both his hands in at once. They would then put the two goats before the priest, one to his right and one to his left, whereupon he would reach into the box with both his hands and take out the two pieces of wood or metal, one of which had the words “For God” written on it and one that read “For Azazel.” The whole thing turned on which lot ended up in which of his hands: the lots in his left and right hands were applied to the goats to his left and his right respectively.

Later in Scripture, the Torah indicates that the specific parcels of land in Israel are to be awarded to the tribes using a system of lots that will allow Joshua to assign out parcels of land to the tribes of Israel without having to choose between them. (How exactly the system ended up offering the larger tribes the larger parcels of real estate—which Scripture makes clear was both logical and also what actually did happen—became the subject of a long, complicated debate between commentators, but perhaps the riddle is its own answer: the proof that divvying up the land by lots was being done with God’s assent—and, indeed, at God’s command—was reflected in an outcome that awarded more space to larger tribes.) And, indeed, the Book of Joshua describes in detail how this all worked, referencing the concept again and again as it describes the apportionment of the land following the defeat of the Canaanites.

Better known than that, however, will be the use of lots in the story of Jonah—also a feature of the Yom Kippur experience, and possibly for just that reason—in which the sailors on Jonah’s ship, unsure who has attracted the divine wrath reflected in the storm threatening to sink their ship. How exactly this is accomplished, the book does not specifically say, simply explaining that “they cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.”

The key concept in all these stories is arbitrariness, but it points in each story in a slightly different direction. The goats were identical, but were to have entirely different destinies…and the use of lots was meant to underscore that the whole ritual was meant to be symbolic, that this wasn’t about the goats at all but about the people on whose behalf they would be offered up. All of the Land of Israel is God’s eternal gift to all the tribes of Israel…but the tribes had to settle somewhere if they were to retain their tribal identity…and so the land was parceled out entirely arbitrarily to stress the point that, for all the gift of specific real estate to specific tribes was requisite, it was not to be allowed to obscure the fact that the entire country was the entire nation’s patrimony.  The sailors on Jonah’s boat were, at least by self-definition, God-fearing men, but they could not look into each other’s souls…and so the lots were meant to place the matter squarely in God’s hands.

And that brings us to Esther. Haman casts the lots—or someone does—and the month of Adar comes up entirely arbitrarily. (This is all taking place, the story makes clear, almost a year in advance.) Then he (or whoever) casts the lots again and the specific date for the pogrom comes up. The king, ever eager to please, agrees to Haman’s request. And that settles it—the annihilation of the Jews of Persia is scheduled and, as all readers of Esther know, even the king of Persia cannot rescind his own decree. Here, arbitrariness points us, however, in a different direction. We want things to be predetermined. We like to fantasize that the definition of being God-fearing people is to accept that our destinies are in God’s hand, that we only imagine ourselves to the masters of our own destinies but that really, ultimately, we are only putty in God’s hands. We say, of course, that we want to be independent players, that we want to be the captains of our own ships, that we want to chart our own courses in life. But hiding behind all that self-absorbed bluster is the secret desire we all harbor not to be responsible for our own actions, not to have to bear the brunt of the blame when we fail to achieve the goals we ourselves have set, not to have to acknowledge ourselves as free agents who bear full responsibility for what we do in the world and what we fail to do.

Against all that is our belief, equally indefensible, that we can control the world by behaving one way or another, that we can fight back the dark tides of anti-Semitism merely by embracing our faith all the more strongly.  We fantasize that we are behaving worthily by supposing that we can govern the world by embracing the commandments and being even more steadfast in our resolve to keep them faithfully. That too, we all know, does not quite work as we all wish it did. But what would be the alternative? It is to that question that Purim provides the answer.

As another Purim is almost upon us, we would do well to face things as they are in this world…and to find peace and wisdom in the insecurity that doing so inevitably engenders. There is, Purim teaches us obliquely, a certain arbitrariness to the universe. Things happen, including bad things. The ancients put it pithily: ha-olam k’minhago noheig, the world spins merrily along whether we like it or not. That we would all like to come to faith from a position of strength—by believing that if we only believe intently and convincingly enough we will somehow bend the world to our will—is obvious enough, but the true path to Jerusalem rests in coming to faith imbued not with security but with insecurity, not hypnotized by the fantasy that can defeat our foes by eating enough matzah or shaking our lulavim vigorously enough, but sobered by our final recognition that we can only pray for God’s mercy…and, as the psalm says, by making strong and brave our hearts with trust in God’s ability to save.

In the end, the Jews of Shushan knew joy and gladness. The Jews of Vilna, on the other hand, knew almost total extermination. Were the former better people than the latter? Did they deserve their salvation more than their co-religionists would later on in Riga or Warsaw or Lodz? The key to Purim is not to embrace this story so tightly that it shuts out all the other ones that ended tragically…but to embrace the pur, the arbitrary nature of all human life that makes it not only rational but spiritually and emotionally requisite to face the future filled with hope…in God’s power to save, in the destiny of the Jewish people to survive, in the willingness of the world to act honorably and decently. To take that hope and to embrace it, but without also believing that we can rule history by so doing—that is the great lesson Purim holds out to the faithful.<

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