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Purim | Cynicism vs Holiness

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

What is the test of a truly great person? Is there some kind of litmus test which can identify our true essence?

Chapter 27 of the Book of Proverbs says Ish lefi mahalalo, which Rabbeinu Yonah, one of our great commentators from the Middle Ages, translates to mean that a person’s definition is in accordance with what he praises. If we want to know the true nature of a person, there is only one question to ask: what is it that they praise? What is important to them and what are their priorities? By answering that, we get a glimpse into the true character of a person. If we want to know about a society, we must ask who its heroes are and what are its priorities and values, for the things we value  reveal who we are.

Rav Yitzchak Hutner, one of the great  rabbinic leaders of the twentieth century, says that there are some people – cynics – who actually praise nothing. In the language of our Sages, such a person is called a letz, a “scoffer.” For the cynic, life is empty; there is nothing worthy of praise, nothing important, special or meaningful. Cynicism means looking at life coldly and esteeming nothing. Thus, it is not only about what we do or do not value which reflects our true character, but whether in fact we value anything at all.

The name “Purim” signifies a philosophical struggle

On the upcoming festival of Purim, which we celebrate, please G-d tonight, the 14th day of the Jewish month of Adar, we will read about the Haman’s attempted genocide against the Jewish people and the great miracles that Hashem performed to bring about the Jews’ salvation. But Purim isn’t just about an attempted genocide against the Jewish people and Mordechai and Esther’s intervening in order to save them. Something else was taking place – a much deeper, philosophical struggle.

To understand this, let us first understand why this festival is called Purim. Purim actually means the casting of lots. When Haman decided he was going to wipe out the entire Jewish people throughout the Persian Empire, he cast lots to pick a date for the genocide and it came out to the 13th day of the month of Adar, the day that we observe Ta’anit Esther, the fast of Esther. The Ibn Ezra, one of our commentators from the Middle Ages, points out that the word Purim is not even a Hebrew word, but a Persian one. Why does the festival get a name which signifies the random casting of lots? And why a Persian word?

This raises another question: why did Haman cast random lots to choose a date for destroying the Jewish people, instead of picking a date that would be convenient for him? Normally, when planning an event – and certainly when someone is planning genocide – one would plan it at a suitable, carefully thought-out time. It’s hard enough to plan the logistics of something of such magnitude; why didn’t Haman pick a date that would suited him and his troops best (for example, a time of year when the weather is suitable, and other considerations)? Why did he cast random lots?

Haman came from the nation of Amalek – the ultimate cynics. We see their true nature exhibited in the first attack against the Jewish people, which the verse describes as asher karcha baderech, who “chanced upon you on the way.” The word karcha, from the word mikreh, means “by chance,” representing Amalek’s philosophy that everything happens by chance. They believed in the randomness of life and were the ultimate cynics.

When the Jewish people came out of Egypt, no one would dare to go near them. The Torah describes the fear and trepidation that the nations felt in the face of this nation which had just emerged victorious from Egypt, the superpower at that time, and had witnessed the miracles of the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. There was an aura of invincibility about the Jewish people, till Amalek came and tampered with this aura. Rashi compares Amalek’s attack to a boiling hot bath; no one wants to get in but after the first person jumps in, the bath cools off and then other people feel at ease to jump in as well. So too with Amalek: once they attacked, the Jews were no longer invincible and other nations felt at ease to attack.

What gave Amalek the confidence to attack the Jews? It was their cynicism. They saw the plagues and the miracles and it meant nothing to them. Their worldview was based on a philosophy of randomness, that life is meaningless and makes no difference and that things just “happen.” Haman’s method of casting lots for a date for the genocide stemmed from Amalek’s worldview. The word Purim represents the philosophy against which the Jewish people were fighting at the time – the philosophy of Amalek, the worldview that life is empty and random.

Judaism is based on a belief in purpose and Divine Providence. G-d created the world and it is perfect by design; it didn’t just “happen.” Each one of us is in this world because G-d wants us to be here. He has given each of us a mission to fulfil and therefore what we do is indeed meaningful and important. The whole Torah is based on the fact that what we do, each and every single day, is important; whether we avoid saying a word of lashon hara, whether we give charity, whether we eat kosher – whatever it is, it is actually important to G-d. Everything we do on a daily basis has significance in Hashem’s eyes; it is neither random nor meaningless. Amalek believed nothing made any difference, that nothing is important or special.

The meaning of “holiness”

One of the core concepts of Judaism is what we call in Hebrew kedusha. Kedusha is difficult to translate, though it is generally translated as “holiness.” Holiness means something which has been designated for a specific purpose, something which is special. This is why one of the components of a Jewish marriage ceremony is kiddushin, from the word kedusha, signifying that there is a special relationship here, and that this man and this woman have designated one another as spouse to the exclusion of all others. Holiness means that there is something special in this world and thus it is the very opposite of the concept of randomness. The theory of random evolution seeks to exclude G-d from the creation of the world, claiming that this magnificent world in all of its perfection just came about randomly. But it’s even more than that: it’s a philosophy which says that life is meaningless. If life came about just by chance, if we are all here because of some big accident, then life is indeed meaningless and it makes no difference what we do, whether we are good or bad, whether we lead a good life or not. From the perspective of evolutionary theory, nothing we do matters because the whole world and our existence therein is simply an accident. This is the ultimate cynicism.

In contrast, Judaism teaches that life is special and significant. In fact, the recognition that human life is precious is the basis for morality: if there is no value to human life, what is the crime of harming another human being? Morality is founded on the principle that human life is sacred, and is not just an accident; human beings didn’t just “happen”; they were created by G-d and they have a G-dly soul which makes them special. This is kedusha, sanctity: recognising that life is special, that what we do is special and that every human being is special; we are not here by accident.

According to Amalek’s worldview, if human beings are indeed just an “accident,” then there is nothing wrong with harming them. It’s not coincidental that Haman was comfortable with genocide; when you believe life is a random accident and nothing is important, when you believe there is nothing special about human beings, it’s not a far jump to genocide. But Judaism is about holiness, which means every human being is created in the image of G-d and, therefore, to harm another person is to trespass on the sacred property of Hashem.

G-d’s hand, revealed or hidden, is always there

The great heroine of the Purim story is Queen Esther. The name Esther comes from the word “hiddenness,” which the Gemara explains comes from the verse where G-d says haster astir et pannai bayom hahu, “on that day I will hide My face.” There are times in our history – and in our own personal lives – when G-d’s presence is hidden; but although he is hidden, it doesn’t mean He is not there. Queen Esther came with the belief that G-d designed the world and imbued creation with a purpose, and that He is interested in what happens in the world at large and in our personal lives. He watches over human affairs, He guides the world and everything He does is ultimately for the good. Even though at times we go through difficulties and suffering and we can’t see the bigger picture, we believe with perfect faith that He is there and guiding our destiny. Esther believed in Divine Providence, in a G-dly purpose and a Divine plan, and therefore she stood up against Haman who believed in the randomness of things.

The message of the Book of Esther is that there is a Divine plan. G-d intervenes not only via open miracles such as the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea, but also via hidden miracles, guiding events behind the scenes. Queen Esther was appointed just in time to foil Haman’s scheme; although it appeared “natural,” it was not random. On Pesach we celebrate the revealed hand of G-d, the open miracles; but Purim is about seeing G-d’s hidden hand and recognising that these miracles, although they are hidden, are no less important than the revealed miracles. They are all the work of G-d, who has a purpose and a plan for us.

This is why on Purim we celebrate like no other festival. It’s a celebration of life itself, and the victory over Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people and the epitome of cynicism. Our response to cynicism is inspiration and joy. Judaism teaches us not to be cynical about life but to be inspired. We must not view life with cold emptiness; rather, we must view G-d’s plan and design with passion and energy, living every moment like it is a precious gift because indeed it is. Purim is about seizing life and living it in accordance with Hashem’s will and valuing what we do and who we are. How we live our lives is so important and so precious in G-d’s eyes and when we realise that, it brings the ultimate joy: nothing is as joyful as knowing that our lives have purpose, meaning and eternal significance.

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