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The Lottery

No, not that one.

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In memory of Isaac Meyers, z"l, who loved Megillat Esther [the Book of Esther].

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I wasn't really feeling it when we read through Genesis in the fall. All that family angst and drama was just too much for me. I couldn't handle it. I thought Exodus would be better, with its redemption and liberation and all of that. Really, it's much more uplifting than Genesis. Yet, I couldn't get into that, either.

But, finally, we've arrived at a place where my current mood and the Jewish calendar match: Purim.

Purim is the antithesis, in so many ways, of Pesach. Pesach is organized, mesudar, and carefully planned. God speaketh, God doeth, and we get the hell out of Egypt. Later, a highly organized ritual was created to commemorate said exodus. There's an outline, for crying out loud, at the beginning of many haggadot, containing a reminder of the order (literally, the "seder"), even though the book is right in front of you! You can't skip around, so it doesn't really help you to know, before you start, how many steps there are before shulchan orech, when you finally get to eat the egg in salt water. (Or at least some Ashkenazim do. Yum!) There is an order to the dinner ritual, an order to the ritual seder plate, and an order to the three identical matzot that you stack up. There are four questions, the same ones every year, and they're in order, too. There are four glasses of wine, and they, too, have an order. The songs at the end--also highly organized. It wouldn't make sense to have the ox precede the cat, would it? Or the four matriarchs follow the twelve tribes?

Purim? Not so much. Purim is disorganized.

That is clear from the story in Megillat Esther. One of the many things that I love about Megillat Esther is the suspense throughout. Will they or won't they survive? What will Haman do? What will Achashverosh do? (And why is he such a weak character, anyway? But that's a separate issue.) What will become of Esther in the king's palace? Of Mordechai outside it? What will happen when Esther approaches the king? Oooh, it gets me every year. I normally hate suspense (like, in movies and books), but in Megillat Esther, I love it!

Why is there so much suspense, though? If you think about it, there isn't really a plan for redemption in Esther. There isn't a plan at all. Purim is based on the randomness of things. Things just happen, tumble jumble, one after another. It could go one way or the other, and you don't know until it happens. The very name of the holiday--Purim, based on the Akkadian pūru meaning lottery--is random. Haman could have picked any day to plan to kill Mordechai and his ilk, and the day he came up with was utterly random. Just like it was random that Mordechai happened to overhear Bigtan and Teresh and thus save the king's life. Just like it was random that Haman walked into the palace to finally do away with Mordechai just when the king had insomnia and thus one of the most fun bits of the megillah comes into being--Mordechai, dressed as a king, being led around the city by his arch nemesis, Haman, who is calling out Mordechai's praises.

Life goes this way, I think, more often than it goes in the "God speaketh" way.

Even before Isaac died this week, it has become increasingly clear to me that things--many things--might not turn out as they ought or as I once thought they would. Things might not be what you would expect them to be at all, and really, nobody can predict much of anything. You think you know who someone is, but you don't. You think you have the rest of your life to get to know someone better, but you don't. You think that things ought to go a certain way, and they don't. (And then you have to deal with the repercussions of all of those things not going according to the plan in your head.)

This--this acknowledgement of things being what they are not, and not being what they are, and the sheer unknowability and lack of plannedness of it all--is nothing short of terrifying when we are forced to confront it. Purim, Rabbi Jan Uhrbach once taught me, is about joy with an undercurrent of fear. (In contradistinction to Yom Kippur, which is fear with an undercurrent of joy.) That suspense from Megillat Esther that I mentioned earlier, that unknown, unknowable, and apparently random quality of life, pervades Purim.

Oh, we try to deny the fear on Purim. We stamp our feet and twirl our graggers in an attempt to drown out what is, or what was, and we dress in costume to pretend to be what we are not. (My plan is to wear a purple, lit-up, punky wig. I.e., what I am not, a punk rocker. I am not going with full regalia, though. Just a wig.) We drink to confuse Haman and Mordechai, to make each into the other, to make each into what he is not. Purim is about what is not as much as it is about what is. As much as Pesach is about God's awesome, history-altering strength, Purim is about its absence. As is often noted, God's name does not appear in the megillah.

Purim tells us that there is no plan. If the king happens to pick the Jewess to be his new wife, we are all saved. And if not, not. If the king sides with his Jewess wife over his vizier, we are all saved. And if not, not. (As Esther herself says, "וְכַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי, אָבָדְתִּי" Esth. 4:16) Unlike Pesach, there is no instruction manual.

Perhaps, as the Rabbis claim, there was a plan all along, but it was simply nistar, hidden.1 Perhaps. But even if I convince myself that this is true--that God was there and God was pulling the strings all along--it really gives me very little comfort if we can't see him or sense him or feel him in the vicissitudes of life. When it seems and feels like there is no plan, God's hidden presence is of little comfort.

My mood and Purim's a good match this year not because I particularly feel the absence of God. I've known for a long time that God lets terrible things happen and that there isn't a damned thing we can do about it, and I still choose to believe in God. Nothing has changed about that.

Purim and I are a good match because, for the first time in my life, there is no plan. There is no "next step." I have outgrown my current job2 but there's really no place up for me to go in my current field without going back to school. (A BA just ain't what it used to be, folks.) I am not even sure that I want to stay in my current field. Staying would basically mean more of the same, but I would have the additional responsibility of managing others. This does not sound like fun. And lest you retort that life is about more than having fun, I will amend that statement and say, "That sounds like a recipe for disaster, because I will be bored to tears before too long." (There must be something I can do that won't bore me to tears, but that will also pay the rent and for food and other necessities.)

Thus, I have decided to leave my current job and go off and do something else. Something unknown. I have begun to apply for things (being purposely obtuse), something that I have not done (except when applying for jobs), in a long, long time. Thus far, I am 0 for 2. I am waiting to hear back from a third place, and I have approximately two remaining places to apply, but after two rejections, it's hard to sally forth and apply to more programs. My life feels quite a bit like a lottery these days. Like a totally random, arbitrary decision made by people I don't know and may never meet, or by people who I know quite well, will at least on a superficial level determine what happens next. Can you stand the suspense?

Chag Purim sameyach!

[Last year's Purim posts here, here, here, and here. It was a prolific Purim, what can I say?]

1. אסתר מן התורה מנין? (דברים לא) ואנכי הסתר אסתיר [Hulin 139b]
2. I do not blog about work as a rule, but (a) rules were meant to be broken (this is me practicing to be a punk rocker) and (b) my superiors at work already know of my plans to leave.

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The Maharal says that Purim is greater than Pesach. This is contrary to what we might assume - for the miracles of Pesach were so much more spectacular! But the point of all miracles is for us to recognize God's involvement in the world. When it come to Pesach, we didn't have much of a choice. Everyone recognized the miraculous nature of the events.

But Purim was different - the whole story could have been attributed to coincidence, or just political savvy on behalf of Mordechai and Esther. God isn't mentioned in the Megillah because he didn't have to be. The fact that they were willing to recognize God's involvement is what made it into redemption:
כל האומר דבר בשם אומרו מביא גאולה לעולם

But even within that story, as you point out, everything seems random. In fact, as Rav Mordechai Breuer pointed out, everything in the story could be a coincidence - except one thing. Had Esther not had the courage to enter the king's palace uninvited - none of the coincidences / randomness / hashgacha would have come to pass. Just like Nachshon going into the sea - without man's involvement, even the greatest miracles can't happen.

So maybe that's the lesson here. That even though we live in a random world, where miracles seem like coincidences, sometimes one act can have significant impact.
Thank you for that lovely comment, Dave! It was inspiring and it gave me something to think about.

Last May, I heard Dr. Avivah Zornberg speak about Esther and the gist of it was the tremendous act of bravery that Esther undertook. I wonder if I can dig up the sources from somewhere and recreate what she said. It was very uplifting.
I once heard a shiur from Rav Aharon Kahn of YU about the lack of Hallel on Purim. He concluded that the Megillah is a Hallel in a sense, since through the brachos we say on it, and our intent, we read Hashem's name - outwardly absent - back into every twist and nuance.

Without the comfort and clarity of G-d's obvious presence, we are called upon to reaffirm our trust and faith that G-d is present nevertheless, His plan intact, as the Jews of Shushan did. (kimu v'kiblu hayehudim - kimu ma shekiblu kvar, refrring to naaseh v'nishmah)

The nature of this opportunity touches on our basic national purpose (or lagoyim), and our individual lifelong quests to actualize our own unique "torah" with which to serve the greater Good.

Yom Kippur seems to lose its own identity in the classic (Kabbalistic) association to which you alluded: "Yom Ki Purim" - a day which approaches Purim. Reading Hashem into our lives when He is hidden behind the mundane and the random is a far more proactive and free-thinking endeavor than appealing to Him for our lives and basic necessities amidst the trappings and observances of the holiest day of the year.

Perhaps this is a reason why Purim will remain as a chag in the future even after other chaggim are no longer necessary (Midrash Mishlei 9:2, Rambam Hilchot Megillah 2:18).
you may be interested in R' Chaim Steinmetz's "Happiness Warrior" philosophy
Thanks, Steg. I looked at Rabbi Steinmetz's blog. I'm not a fan of the lingo, but I like some of the ideas that he mentions very much.
I find it very appealing to have Purim and Pesach so close together, precisely because of the balance that they offer.

And they reflect upon each other, I find. Purim does, as you say, have it's own order, and Pesach is certainly more flexible that we let it be. Witness the variety of sederim that people have - in my own family, we argued over what was in one haggadah versus another. Today, my Pesach seder has a bit of Purim in it, as the kids dress up, do skits, wear funny masks and sing along with us.

revach v'hatzala yimatze l'yehudim mimakom acher
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