Pesach to Purim: From certainty to doubt
Purim is the ultimate holiday of doubt. It is the holiday that signifies the randomness of this world (Thank you to Rabbi Yehoshua Rubin for this observation). The very name of the holiday – Purim, from the Hebrew word meaning “lots” – indicates that ultimately, the physical world is inexplicable to the human condition. There are many questions we cannot answer: Good people suffer, evil people prosper, there are infuriating situations that leave us speechless, at a loss for words, situations that we can only shrug our shoulders in frustration and move on.
Purim is the Jewish approach to that reality. We embrace doubt, and the humility it produces, and celebrate the fact that insecurity does not rule out religious life, mitzvot, God or halacha.
I. Every major character in Megillat Esther is wracked with doubt. These include
He is king of 127 countries, but he seems to endure a fundamental sense of insecurity and inadequacy. His lavish parties continue for months at a time, open for all (perhaps even issuing royal decrees ordering people to come to his parties). He suffers from insomnia. He’s royal servants are all castrated (this was have been a custom in the ancient world, but here it could indicate that Ahashverosh’s inner need to make sure the men around him were not a threat). He seems to feel his position at the top is an illusion, or perhaps he maintains an inner knowledge that he does not belong there at the top. He treats the spoils from the Beit Hamikdash as ordinary party vessels in order to humiliate the Jews. It feels strongly like his dominion over 127 countries is worthless if the people don’t like him, but he doesn’t believe they will do so unless he buys their affection.
Thousands, or even millions, of Shushanian subjects bow down to Haman every day. One pauper at the gate of the royal palace wearing sackcloth refuses to do so, and it drives Haman nuts, to the point he (literally) wants to kill. In the fifth chapter, Haman’s idea for the king “to honour a person whom the king wants to honour” (to be led around on the king’s horse, wearing the finest clothes from the palace) stems from an inner need to have everyone recognise his greatness. He wants everyone to look at him, to say, “hey, look at Haman! The king must really love him. He must be a really special guy!”. Later, his plan to kill Mordechai was not sufficient. He wanted the murder to be carried out on an enormous gallows (and here, too, we find the situation reversed: Haman goes to the gallows while Mordechai is saved. Things don’t always end up the way we plan. In the words of the Yiddish proverb, Man makes plans while God laughs.
Esther is the epitome of an unclear existence. She is brought against her will to the palace, told to hide her identity, and then has to put her life on the line by approaching the king without a royal invitation. Later, she throws her own party but is unsure if Ahashverosh and Haman will come. Ultimately, however, she confronts the uncertainty in her life: She agrees to approach the king (this puts her in two bad situations: The king could kill her on the spot, or he could take her for the night, thus rendering her forbidden to Mordechai, her uncle and husband. The lesson is clear: Life begins when we confront our insecurities and move forward. We often do not know what lies just around the bend, but that must not deter us from continuing to move forward – carefully, perhaps, but forward nonetheless.
Mordechai is fully aware that the world is ultimately incomprehensible to the human condition. But he appears to be okay with this fact, and it doesn’t prevent him from acting, doesn’t ruin his faith. When he says רווח והצלה יעמוד ליהודים ממקום אחר he is saying “I don’t know how this will play out tomorrow. Ultimately, there will be רווח והצלה, but sorry, there are no promises about tomorrow or the next day.
The key to understanding Mordechai is the midrash (rabbinic legend) that says he understood 70 languages. In other words, Mordechai had a keen understanding of people and of nations, and of the strong cultural differences therein – Spanish and Portuguese may be similar languages, but they are distinct and the differences between them belie different cultural references and vantage points. Most of all, Mordechai understands that despite his vast knowledge, he understands that the world is a random place and often defies human understanding. His contribution is the fact his questions do not paralyse him. His lack of clarity does not break him, or destroy his faith in God, or in the prophecy that נצח ישראל לא יישקר (the Jewish People will survive for all time). Note that Mordechai does have a measure of inner strength and security: He enjoys an inner sense of completeness that gives him the wherewithal to refuse Haman’s order to bow down But that sense of completeness comes from the knowledge and acceptance of the fact that he does not know everything.
The only secure person in the Megilla: Ahashverosh summons her to the party, to be paraded naked in front of the guests. He response forceful and final: No Way. She’s got a definite sense of herself, of who she is. But that sort of self-confidence is not part of the Megilla and the spirit of Purim, and Vashti finds herself out of the story by the middle of the first chapter.
II. The annual cycle of Jewish holidays begins in Nissan and concludes in Adar. The holiday year begins with Pesach – the ultimate holiday of certain knowledge and security. We are commanded to re-live the Egyptian slavery – the fears, the frustration, the anger – as well as the miraculous process that led to our redemption. We focus on the 10 plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea – alarming, visceral miracles that seem to erase any question about the supremacy of our God or his Dominion over this world. Non-Jewish Egyptians suffered from boils, lice and darkness, while life for the Jews in Goshen went on undisturbed. The sea stood at attention while the Jews passed through on their way to freedom, then crushed the Egyptians as they tried to make it through. There is no scientific way to explain the “sound-and-light-show” we experienced at Mt Sinai. To walk away from those experiences without belief in God appears ridiculous
But that “belief” is fleeting. Three weeks after leaving Egypt, the people complain to Moshe about how much they miss the “good life” back in Egypt. Less than six weeks later they were dancing around a golden calf.
Significantly, the primacy of uncertainty is present at the very first moment of our holiday year, even as we celebrate God’s certainty: At the Seder meal, we begin the year by talking about miracles and clear “proof” of God’s dominion, the primacy of freedom, of our holy task in the world. [I do point out, however, that questions are a central feature, perhaps THE central feature, of the Seder night begin. At the moment we feel most certain of God, of miracles, of the justice and correctness of the Torah system, we seek out things we do not understand: Textual references, conflicting midrashim, the true nature of freedom, how could God harden Pharaoh’s heart and then punish him for refusing to release the Jews from slavery, etc.]
The holiday of certainty gives us solid footing as we begin our journey from Egypt to Israel. We require the certainty of God, of miracles, of the justice and correctness of the Torah system. We need solid grounding as we begin our journey from Egypt to Israel. Strong fundamentals give us the ability to withstand the challenges of the various Amaleks and Balaks who threaten our physical existence, the Korachs who challenge our spiritual integrity, of the Midyanite women who challenge our moral backbones.
The theme of certainty vs. randomness is present throughout our calendar year. On Rosh Hashana we confront our mortality (the question of who will live and who will die is random), but we also celebrate the fact that God created the world – an act of certainty, at least to Orthodox Jews. On Succot, we pray for weather that will allow us to sit in the succa, but we also have the mitzvah of Lulav and Etrog, which represent God’s eternal presence in the world. On Chanukah, we note that our sovereignty in the Land of Israel is not at all secure, but we light candles to indicate our faith that even in a world tarred with war, there can still be light.
And, of course, Yom Kippurim – which literally translates to “a day like Purim”. Much has been written about Yom Kippur being the opposite side of the Purim coin – we pray for health and prosperity, but the fact that we may get neither does not deter us from asking. We spend the day filled with trepidation, which leads to the awesome feeling of warmth and purity that comes with the final shofar blast. But the day does not end with any sense of assurance. Rather, we feel cleansed and able to confront the randomness of the world without falling incapacitated.
III. It seems, then, that in contrast to many systems of religious belief that attempt to provide God-based answers to life’s difficult questions, the opposite is true for the Torah system. In Judaism, the opposite is true:
[On a personal note: This progression maps the human lifespan, or at least my experience. As I grow older, I continue to discover humility, in ways I could never have related to or appreciated as a younger man. At the age of 20, I was not only arrogant, but I had no idea that that my sense of self-certainty was actually holding me back from learning and achieving my goals.
This is most clear with regard to parenting: Making choices for my kids when they were small felt easy: I knew with certainty when to say “yes” and “no,” I knew how to get them to do what I wanted, and the toughest phenomenon to deal with was the occasional temper tantrum, which was frustrating but rarely lasted more than a few minutes and never created serious dilemmas. My prayers were sincere thanksgiving offerings for the blessings I have enjoyed.
But it took teenagers for me to develop a deep sense of longing and humility. As I help my teenagers (and pre-teen) navigate the choppy waters of adolescence, my “knowledge” of “correct” parenting techniques has melted away, and has been replaced by deep prayers for Divine guidance and clarity of vision. I pray for the ability to listen to my boys, to understand their emotional needs, and especially for the inner strength to subjugate my hopes to their needs. These prayers are the deepest sense of longing I have ever felt, far more intense than the feelings of gratitude experienced years ago when I simply enjoyed life with little boys.
So, too, is the journey from Pesach to Purim. We begin with miracles and passionate interaction with God and a sense of certainty – it is important for an individual and a society to know who they are, what they are, what their goals are in this world. We progress towards a mature understanding that the world is ultimately incomprehensible to the human condition, but that does not deter us from praying, celebrating and living religious lives.