Monday, September 26th | 1 Tishri 5783

March 14, 2011 1:08 pm

Purim and the Forces of Randomness

avatar by Adam Jacobs

Esther and Mordechai writing the second letter of Purim. Oil on canvas, 1685. Rhode Island Museum of Art.

24 centuries ago the Jewish People, exiled in Persia, were slated for their first genocide at the hands of King Ahasuerus and his sociopathic viceroy Haman the Aggagite.  Through a series of apparently fortuitous coincidences they experienced a surprising reversal of fortune that left their enemies vanquished and the Jews well positioned to return to their homeland, Israel.

A notable feature of the Book of Esther, where these events are recounted, is the absence of God from the story.  In fact, it is the only book of the Hebrew cannon that lacks even one mention of a divine name.  Notably also, is that there are no miraculous occurrences – all of the action is attributable to normative social and political intrigue.  What then are we expected to glean from the text? Though it may contain these things, the Hebrew Bible is not a book of history or even law.  It is a work of theology, and the theological lesson it intends to impart is in regard to the perennial battle between the forces of order/meaning vs. randomness.

When the Jewish people first left Egypt (en route to Israel) on the heels of the plagues and the parting of the sea they were attacked – sucker punched by a nation named “Amalek” who purposely assaulted the most feeble and helpless first.  Jewish tradition records that the Amalekite calling card is their pathological hatred of the Jewish people coupled with their willingness to destroy themselves – just as long as they can inflict maximum casualties on their enemies.  As the Talmud likens it, the Jews were like a boiling cauldron as they triumphantly exited their Egyptian prison.  Sensing this (and wanting desperately to end it) Amalek threw themselves in the cauldron – cooling it off, and scorching themselves in the process.  The text goes out of its way to highlight the relationship between Amalek and the concept of doubt – “Is God among us or not?  Amalek came…” (Exodus 17:7-8)  Curiously, the numerical values of the Hebrew words for doubt and Amalek are the same.

Three centuries later the battle was an inch away from being won.  Newly crowned King Saul had nearly destroyed [the Jews’] arch-enemy.  In a moment of weakness, he had mercy on Agag the Amalekite king and jailed him rather than execute him as he had planned.  That night the king managed to sneak a prostitute into his cell – resulting, many generations later, in the ascendancy to power of Haman…the Agagite.  Haman has all the tell-tale signs – the unbridled and irrational Jew hatred, the narcissism, and most importantly, the headlong embrace of that which seems random (and thus meaningless).  His chosen method to select the date of the Jews demise is to cast lots – to leave it to chance.  Hence the name of the holiday commemorating these events – Purim, meaning lots.

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Amalek is a perennial looser.  Though they are often able to inflict a great deal of suffering, like Haman, they are shocked to find themselves ensnared in the net that they themselves cast.  In the end, though God was hidden and the events were all “natural,” far too many fortuitous events unfolded for us to chalk it up to mere coincidence.  The events in the book of Esther were guided by a subtle and unseen hand – allowing evil to have its day in the sun until its entire order was suddenly and inexplicably overturned.  Meaning and order had triumphed over chaos and randomness.

Amalek thus represents a worldview – one that believes that there is no ultimate meaning or purpose to life.  Things just…happen, for no reason.  It should be self-evident that this battle is alive and well today and is being fought primarily between science and theology, (as well as between political and religious entities with Amalakite tendencies vs. The Jews and the Western world).  There are those that believe that random forces assembled and developed life as we know it, that the notions of good and evil are make-believe and that those who are strongest should thrive.  The other side sees signs of order and control in the world, believes that right and wrong are immutable and objective realities and that all people are equally valuable due to the exalted nature of their transcendent essences.

Amalek passionately hates the Jewish people as they are the standard-bearers of the forces of order.  Our anthem is “Shma Yisrael” – the declaration that God is one – not just in number, but also in essence.  He is called the “Conductor.” the behind-the-scenes (but critical) director of world events.  How do we know?  These same patterns repeat themselves over and over in Jewish history.  When the Jews left their exile in Egypt in route to Israel they were attacked by the unhinged hatred of Amalek.  800 years later, this time in exile in Persia, Amalek once again rears his head to annihilate man, woman and child and prevent the return to Israel.  2400 years later, the Jews are exiled in Europe (and all over the world) and are slowly attempting to reestablish their ties to their ancient homeland.  For a third time, a pathological Jew-hater surfaces to continue the dance macabre.  And on it goes.

There are those who ask: “where was God during the Holocaust?”, “why did He not prevent the earthquake in Japan?” and “if He’s so great then why don’t more people believe in Him?”  Interestingly, the Torah itself teaches that God will relate to us exactly as we choose to relate to Him and if we don’t really want him around He will not appear to be there.  “If despite this you will not heed Me and you behave towards me with casualness, I will behave towards you with a fury of casualness.” (Leviticus 26:27) See how things are without Me, God says.  You may not like it much.

The Sages teach that though we no longer know who Amalek is, anyone can take on his characteristics.  It behooves us all to examine which side of the fight (and of history) we would like to be on.

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