Published in The Jerusalem Post on March 8, 1998
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 control.
It’s the Naharayim murders anniversary, juxtaposed this week with Purim, that gets me reflecting on the existential realities and uncertainties of life. Weekly upheavals in the Mossad, gas mask crises that come and go, bolt-from-the-blue deaths by auto accident, class tours marred by terrorism and health frailties that jar us from serenity – add to my apprehension. We’re not really in control.
The capriciousness of life is exactly what Purim is all about. The Megillah 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. Mordechai is threatened with execution; then, suddenly, he becomes prime minister. Irrational events and moods transform fear into festivity. “Venahafoch hu” – everything gets turned upside down and opposite.
The late, great Rabbi J.B. Soleveitchik taught that even the name PURim (meaning * goral *, 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, taught Soleveitchik. “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 self-doubt. 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). And tolerance, which stems from humility, remains largely a foreign concept.
So it might be a good idea to force all our would-be leaders to hear the Megillah read aloud in synagogue this week. A little humble pie would do them, and us, plenty good.
THE PURIM STORY also provides an excellent lesson, to Presidents, Prime Ministers and commoners, in understanding the link between Providence and human endeavor.
The Megillah hints that beyond the intrigue of royal courtyards, and behind the politics of an Oval Office, lies a Hidden Hand operating on a transcendental plane. Beyond the grasp of man’s finite mind, there * is * order and purpose. A higher Divine order into which man has not been initiated.
In short, what appears random, isn’t. The * pur * is really planned. Even now, with all the irresponsible, immoral and criminal behavior around us, G-d is engaged. Israel at fifty — uncertain of its identity and direction — is not alone.
Moreover, the 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 Chanina, “but man still possesses moral freedom” (Berachot 33b).
Thus the ultimate calculus is beyond us. Advantage and personal benefit 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.