A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Purim - Lots....of Chaos

A brief word on Purim, which begins Monday night.

Purim means 'lots' and refers to the fact that the evil Haman cast lots to determine the date upon which the Jews would be destroyed (see Esther 3:7). Purim takes its name from chance, then - the pure chaos that seems to governs our lives. Haman's crass indifference to the fate of God's people is demonstrated by this contemptuous act of allowing chance to determine when the Jews will be destroyed.

But even beyond this literal casting of the lots, the story symbolizes the chaos of existence on a deeper level. People throughout the vast kingdom are to be destroyed because a single person (Mordechai) refused to bow to a king's Minister whose temper happened to get the best of him? How can any kind of Divine plan unfold in a world in which a single man, controlled by the vagaries of his own anger, has so much power?

God seems to be absent - there is no mention of God in the story at all. What is the relationship between the absence of God from the tale and the sense of chaos and chance that hang over the story?

Levi Yitzchak has a beautiful reflection on this. He takes this notion that God is absent and uses it to emphasize the importance of human agency. God's absence from the story reflects the fact that tzadikim, righteous ones, have the capacity to undo Divine decrees. God looks to the righteous and fulfills their will instead of God's own.

Rather than describing a righteous person as someone who does God's will, he redefines it as someone whose will God does. The righteous are sovereign. This explains why, in spite of God's absence and the corresponding presence of grim fate, the story comes out well: the righteous Mordechai and Esther bring salvation.

Our own sense sometimes that the world is without order, governed by chaos shouldn't lead us to despair. Instead it should lead us to a profound sense of hope, possibility and responsibility - that the chaos is only superficial and can be overcome by acts of courage and beauty.

Pretty heavy. So, don't forget to have mad fun on Purim, Monday night.

The Mitzvot of Purim (not a full list):
*Observe the fast of Esther - Monday morning until Monday evening (March 9th)
*Hear the Megillah read on Monday evening.
*Celebrate with a great meal.
*Send food to friends.
*Give gifts/money to those in need.
*Some say that one is obligated to get drunk enough on Purim that one no longer knows the difference between "blessed is Mordechai and Cursed is Haman." Others, however, say that the obligation is merely to drink more than one is accustomed to. Of course, one struggling with alcoholism is required to stay away from alcohol altogether on Purim.


  1. The truth about Haman’s plan to cast lots to determine when to kill the Jews
    Although Purim takes its name from chaos, which Rabbi Josh says governs lives, Haman’s ignorance into the completeness of the Lord God Almighty of Israel’s knowledge about the outcome of all the so called chaos in the Universe only boosted Haman’s arrogance in believing he could destroy the Jews by allowing chance to determine when the Jews would be killed.
    Rabbi Josh questions “How can any kind of Divine plan unfold in a world in which a single man controlled by the vagaries of his own anger and has so much power.”
    God must choose and educate and refine such a man, the messiah, as to control his anger so that it is only directed at the wicked. Yet the messiah must control any physical retaliation which would be in vain anyway, and also control any words that would be spoken that may defile his soul during judgment. The messiah must defer to the Lord God Almighty of Israel to pick and choose throughout all humanity and then use His anthropomorphic hand to execute the wicked and save the righteous and good.
    Levi Yitzchak, as Rabbi Josh points out, says that in God’s absence (which is only a perception), from the story of Esther and Mordechai, it reflects the fact that righteous ones have the capacity to undo Divine decrees.
    God uses this type of thinking to allow righteous ones, tzadikim, to learn His ways, and then to live them out according to the Lord’s plan for their goodness and happiness.
    It could be rationalized that a righteous person rather than doing God’s will, is someone whose will God does. This is why it is so important that we think good thoughts and that our will be righteous so that the Lord can execute them without doing harm to ourselves and the world. This is especially true of the messiah.
    God answered Mordachai and Esther’s prayer (will) to save them and the Jews. Contrary to Rabbi Josh’s beliefs, Mordachai and Esther can only be said to bring salvation as in the same way as said about the messiah, and that is through the all knowing and all powerful Holy one of Israel by which all good things including salvation come.
    It is good that Rabbi Josh is led to a profound sense of hope and responsibility by his acts of courage, but he will soon realize, just as Solomon did, that all is in vain unless we completely turn our lives (will) over to what the Lord wants them to be for our own goodness, happiness and completeness.

  2. Mark: You touch on a fundamental problem in many religions and that is authority. It is nice to say one must do God's will, but each of us must seek to know what that is. Much good and evil (by our reckoning) has been done in the name of the Lord.

    I commend to your reading "The Path of the Just" by R. Luzzatto. While he says that we strive to become one with God, the first step is the characteristic of watchfulness wherein we must carefully examine the situation to determine what is right and wrong. Perhaps this is the ultimate irony in the drunkenness in celebration of Purim.

  3. Dear Pack:
    It is so nice to know that the final authority is the all knowing Lord, who read all minds and motives. For if it were not so, many could deceive the reaper on judgment day and lay havoc to the world after judgment.
    As children, we pray that God gives us our will. And in many cases He does just that by allowing us to grow up into the kind of adults we want to emulate as children. I will agree that much good and evil has been done in the name of the Lord. Evil is often done in retaliation for what might be evil or just perceived as evil. Usually this retaliation is done by oppression or violence. This has resulted in the world spiraling onto the brink of holocaust and extinction.
    Hopefully I will not forget to find the book “The Path of the Just” by R. Luzzatto and read it. You paraphrase the wonderful remark that says that in order to become one with the Lord, we must first become watchful to examine the situation to determine what is right and what is wrong. I have done that all my life, but it does not only help me learn but it also makes me slightly judgmental.
    Your astute observations about what happens to some people on Purim can only be explained by the lack of moderation which leads to the apparent insanity of drunkenness. I believe the Lord instructs us in the Tanakh, that everything should be exercised in moderation.

  4. Dear moepackman:

    I received "The Path of the Just" by Moshe Chaim Luzzatto translated and commented on by Yaakov Feldman from the library. I was impressed by the introductions and first chapter which told us about musar way of life for Jews. It was suggested that we should peruse the book many times to get the full use out of it, so I went on line and ordered it from Israel which was the only place I could get it from via Borders Book Store.

    Thanks moepackman for your suggestion.

    I write my thoughts in the form of a critique as I read it. I asked Rabbi Josh for your e mail address so that I could send it to you without cluttering up his blogspot. If the effort is unsuccessful, it was meant to be, but I do want you to know that I appreciate your suggestion.