The Role of Chance
The word Purim literally means “lots,” as in “drawing lots.” The name of the holiday is meant to remind us that of the fact that Haman used lots to determine the date that the Jews of Persia would be killed. There was no rhyme or reason to the choosing of this date: it was left to random chance. Of course the fact that the tables were turned and that this became the date for Haman’s demise further reminds us of the unpredictability of life.
Purim reminds us that much in life is a matter of chance. Where we are born, who our parents are, the friends we meet, what we look like—these are all things that are either completely or mostly out of our control. We work hard to exert control in those areas that we can, but it is just as important to learn how to roll with the punches and how to accept our blessings.
With Rosh Hodesh Adar, the start of the Jewish month of Adar, we are taught that we must greatly increase our joy. Why be happy during the month of Adar? Why not?! Though we may have little control of the fortunes the world hands us, we still have some control over how we choose to respond. For centuries, it was as likely as not that the Jews were facing their own Hamans, individuals who sought to injure the Jews. The celebration of Purim has always acted as an opportunity for us to make fun of those who wish to do us harm. Whether it’s the little tyrants who annoy us at the office or the truly dangerous bigots of the world, we have real peoples’ names in mind as we drown out the name of Haman. Purim reminds us that if we can laugh at these villains, we can take away some of their power. And besides, it’s good to let it all hang out once in a while.
There is a rabbinic reading of the Purim story that is critical of Esther. It asks how it can be that our savior intermarries, hides her Jewish identity, and participates in such a sordid beauty contest? Esther engages in all kinds of activities that the Rabbis warned us were harmful to Jewish survival. Yet it is exactly those choices that put her in a position to save her people. And guess what? Esther didn’t have to do it. She could have tried to play it safe. She could have remained in hiding or asked only for personal protection from Haman’s decree. Instead she cast her lot with the entire Jewish people.
Esther teaches us that our power and privilege are meaningless protections if we do not use them to ensure the safety of our people. She recognizes that as long the Jews are oppressed, she too is in danger. Part of our challenge as Jews is to figure out what it means to protect our fellow Jews when they are in danger. Her example also reminds us of the importance of creating communities where all Jews feel welcome.
The world looks different when it is upside down
On Purim we are supposed get so drunk (or behave as though we were so drunk) that we can’t tell the difference between the hero, Mordechai and the villain, Haman. In part, the turning of things upside down reminds us of the moral ambiguities of life. There are genuine evils and injustices in the world that demand we speak up like Esther. But even as we take action or speak up ,we do so knowing that heroes and villains are often more defined by perspective than fact. Sometimes it is only when we step into another’s shoes (or entire outfit as we do when we dress in costumes on Purim), that we can really appreciate the ethical complexities of life. Purim encourages us to turn our world completely upside down, so that things look so disorienting that we feel as though we are drunk. Such a world allows us to recognize the absurd in our normal lives.