Category Archives: Purim

Purim – never left to chance

The name of each of our festivals usually connotes the character or theme of the day. It is interesting then, that Purim should be named for the seemingly trivial detail that Haman drew lots to determine the date on which to destroy the Jewish people. What’s more perplexing is that the word pur is an ancient Persian word which the Megilla translates for us: ‘hipil pur, hu hagoral’, he cast pur, which is a lot (Esther 3:7).

Haman was a descendant of Agag, the king of the nation of Amalek. On the Shabbat before Purim we read the special maftir which tells the story of how the nation of Amalek attacked the Jewish people at Refidim, shortly after the exodus from Egypt. The Torah says that when Moses held his hands up towards heaven the Jewish people were inspired to overcome Amalek and when he tired and dropped them Amalek overcame them (Exodus 17:11).

The Torah also relates the nature of the attack: ‘Asher korcha baderech … v’lo yarei Elokim.’ How he happened upon you on the way … and [they] didn’t fear G-d. (Deuteronomy 25:18). Once again the nature of Amalek is related to happenstance and luck.

This is because Amalek represents the ideology that whatever happens in the world is merely by accident or chance. Every experience, good or bad has come about through a multidimensional network of coincidences, each related to another. This is why Amalek ‘didn’t fear G-d’. They saw their success or failure as a matter of their own making.

Yet that philosophy flies in the face of the very foundations of Jewish belief. G-d not only exists but He plays an active role in the world. His relationship with us means that nothing happens merely by chance.

When Haman cast lots, it reflected the philosophy of his ancestors. In fact the word goral in Hebrew means both lottery and destiny. With this in mind, the megilla does not merely translate the word pur but rather expresses the nature of Haman’s plan: ‘hipil pur, hu hagoral’ could mean ‘he cast a lot, this is the destiny [of the Jewish people]’, implying that their destiny will be to have their fate determined by a G-dless game of chance. By casting lots, the very method of Haman’s plan for the destruction of the Jewish people highlighted his nation’s belief that everything is determined by random events.

Despite Haman’s efforts, the entire plan was turned on its head (Esther 9:1) and G-d’s silent hand revealed itself. Everything that appeared to be leading the Jewish people towards destruction (and could have) became the vehicle to ultimately save them. Yet just as the victory with Amalek depended on the Jewish people turning to G-d, the same was true in the time of Mordechai and Esther.

The simcha of Purim comes not only from our victory over Haman, but our victory over his philosophy. A positive relationship with G-d ensures that our lives are never left to chance.

Butterflies, Providence and the Story of Esther

In the summer of 1666, the English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton is said to have pondered the falling of an apple while in the gardens of Woolsthorpe Manor, his family home in Lincolnshire. This apocryphal story describes the seminal moment which prompted him to realise that there must be a force acting on the apple which draws it to the centre of the earth.

After publishing his universal law of gravitation together with his three laws of motion in 1687, Newton was able to not only explain the fall of an apple, but also the orbits of the moon and other celestial bodies with incredible accuracy. This discovery heralded a revolution in scientific understanding which resonated with the beginning of the enlightenment period. The cosmos was no longer mysterious; epitomised by William Blake’s painting of Newton as the divine geometer, God could be replaced with the rational scientist as master over a measurable, knowable and predictable clockwork universe.

This strengthened the concept of causal determinism which implies that every physical event has a physical cause or group of causes. In any system, given one set of specific initial conditions, only one physical outcome is possible.

Yet almost 300 years later in 1961, the American mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz was running a computer algorithm designed to model weather systems. Each variable such as temperature, wind speed and atmospheric pressure, had to be entered manually. After running the model and generating a normal but sophisticated weather system, Lorenz decided to repeat the experiment but rounded one variable of 0.506127 to 0.506.

As the algorithm started to run, it began to produce the same results. Yet in a short time it had deviated from the original model and ultimately generated a completely different weather system.

When Lorenz went to present the work, his colleague Philip Merilees devised the title “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Texas produce a tornado in Brazil?” Lorenz’s most famous observation soon became known as the ‘butterfly effect’.

The flap (or non-flap) of the butterfly represents a tiny change in the initial conditions comparable to Lorenz rounding up the initial variable to 0.506. Although compatible with a deterministic universe, unlike Newton’s celestial orbits, complex systems such as the weather are not predictable for long periods due to the immeasurable number of influencing variables and the unforgiving sensitivity to initial conditions.

By implication, the butterfly effect must be true for every complex system; traffic flow, a football match or even the countless interactions we have each day. At every moment of our lives, the decisions we make and interactions we have will affect the future; the chance meeting with an old friend, missing the train or a social introduction by a mutual acquaintance. In fact, every decision that we make, consciously or subconsciously affects a myriad of interconnecting factors that make up our lives.

Each year on the festival of Purim, we read the story of Esther which describes how the Jewish people were saved from schemes of the wicked Haman. Yet while we recount the miracles which God performed at that time in our prayers, there is no reference in the story to any miracle. In fact, God is not mentioned once.

Yet miracles in which God can influence our lives do not have to break the laws of nature. In our prayers we thank God al nisecha sheb’chol yom imanu – for the miracles that are with us each day.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (d. 1746) explained that God uses natural phenomena to influence His creation, triggering the hidden miracles which guide our lives. Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer (d. 1760) described God’s interaction with the physical world extending to even the most mundane natural phenomena, such as a wisp of straw blown from a thatched roof or a the path of a falling leaf. While we cannot see God’s guiding hand directly, the butterfly effect resonates with the notion that God can intercede in the running of the world without being noticed.

In simple language, Megilat Esther means the scroll of Esther, but the root of the word Megillah is גלה from the verb לְגַלוֹת – l’galot, meaning to reveal and Esther is from the root סתר, from the verb לְהַסְתִּיר – l’hastir, meaning to hide something. Megillat Esther therefore means ‘revealing that which is hidden’: God’s guiding hand.

This is why we dress up on Purim, symbolically hiding our true identity. As we drink wine, the real self is slowly revealed – in vino veritas, or as the sages of the Gemara put it, nichnas yayin, yetzei sod – as the wine goes in, the secret comes out.

Our celebrations on Purim therefore convey the deepest expressions of our faith in Divine Providence and the hidden, yet ever-present hand of God. The challenge for us is whether we choose to bolster our faith and recognise the Divine influence in our lives, or submit to the cold randomness of a Godless world.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.