Purim in the Time of Coronavirus

There has never, in the history of the world, been a better week to celebrate Purim. Never have we been so instantaneously connected, so able to join our voices and declare, “According to my senses and calculations, we’re all going to die.”

The pain, the disappointment, the terror, when life makes no sense. Our role models who do real good turn out to do real evil as well. A people whom G·d has chosen to serve Him until the end of time is split over the nature of their terrible enemies. New diseases spread like wildfire, showing little concern for whether their victims are good or bad people. A world of madness, a lawless jungle whose only logic is power and whose only wise men are mad, nihilists, or hermits.

That’s why Purim is the holiday. There, the Jewish people in exile, cradling in their arms the shattered vessel of their faith, Babylon ascendant, then Persia. Look at their sages, dying embers with no land and no Judaism structured to last without a temple. The most powerful sober man in the civilized world is a descendant of the king of the Israelites’ greatest historical enemy, the one their king failed to kill. Economists and pedants say with great authority: The Jews (as they are now called) have no future in Persia; their prophets were mistaken; their G·d has forsaken them. End of the road.

“All the finite worldly things on which I have mentally and emotionally come to rely turn out to have been playthings in the wheel of chance!”

“The logics with which I have tended the garden to turn fate to my favor have been maliciously upended. I am being laughed at!”

“There is no G·d! We are but cockroaches in the wheel wells of a car heading down a ravine with no driver at the wheel!”

“It turns out I’ve been sating my inner emptiness with little puzzles as a chaotic jungle churns all around, and now it has stepped on my toys!”

This is our exile. Our exile has always been so sunny, so fair, so brimming with the rational possibility of our survival. But Purim is THE holiday because it’s the holiday of exile, and Purim is no mere survival. The Jews in Egypt toiling endless aimless labor were surviving. Purim is redemption. Purim is joy in that place of pain, disappointment, and terror. In the place that makes no sense.

The only interludes in the exile, the only times Purim no longer seems vital, are when we are so inured to the darkness it no longer seems dark. When we turn as those Jews did to Achashverosh, name some small realm of the senseless dark a dependable salvation, and settle for a partial explanation of some whorl in the vast churning unknowable. We make it first and worship it. This stage is called “prelude to Haman,” and Purim will again be demanded soon enough.

We have called senselessness the sign of exile. Knowing, logic, sense — a fitting in, a connection, each thing arrives at its place among the other things as Adam knows Eve. But Purim is not the apparent solution to exile, its opposite, that is, enlightenment, knowing.

Purim — to not know, to lose that place among things, to be blind to their interlocking:

“One is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until one doesn’t know the difference between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordechai’.”

Talmud, Megillah 7b

Some authorities in Jewish law say that the comparison is mathematical, that it is no mere coincidence that the Hebrew terms ‘Blessed is Mordechai’ and ‘Cursed is Haman’ have the same numeric value in the Gematria. Thus, the Talmud is saying you have to drink wine on Purim until you can no longer reckon this mathematical equality. But (aside from not fitting the words well—you are not then drinking until you don’t know the difference but rather until you don’t know the equality) there is more to not know about Haman and Mordechai than the mere math of the thing.

Esther, the heroine queen who lends her name to the whole story (Megillas Esther) is named after concealment, “I shall conceal my face.”[i] Not only is her identity long-concealed from her husband, but Esther is itself a pseudonym for Hadassah, a name of doubled and redoubled darkness, concealment that is itself concealed.

Esther is not just the name of the work but its theme. Every other book of the holy Jewish Tanakh mentions G·d by name. Esther does not. It is apparently a story of natural events, political machinations, reversals of fortune, the workings of happenstance. These must pass for G·d in the story of Purim.

Mordechai, a hero of Purim, is the nemesis of the evil Haman. Yet in this respect, they seem to work together. Mordechai writes the Megillah and hides G·d’s presence within it. Haman is a scion of Amalek; hiding G·d’s presence is his specialty. Mordechai does not name G·d; Haman says naming Him would make no difference. Amalek has the same numerical value as safek, doubt. Haman is doubt. Should Mordechai not have stood against doubt, and named G·d?[ii]

Nowhere is happenstance, the Hamanic G·d, more present than in gambling and chance. The honest scientist, in his exile interludes, admits his firm laws are bound by the rules of possibility and statistics, down to (and especially in) the quantum realm. Even regular laws of physics from Newton to Einstein and beyond are applied “with all else being equal.” The sun will probably rise tomorrow and the eggs on my breakfast plate will probably be better on my digestive system than the plate itself unless something happens, something unpredictable. The dice roll, we find the ends of the bell curve, the impactful and unlikely, the proverbial black swan. As the Yiddish saying goes, Mahn tracht un G·t lacht. Man plans and G·d laughs.

If the book of exile is named Esther because G·d is hidden within it, exile’s holiday is named Purim because stuff happens, no matter the plan.  Pur is the Persian word for ‘lottery’. It is the lottery that lies curled at the heart of darkest exile. Who catches the virus? Not whom a just G·d chooses, but those who are exposed. Ah, some who are exposed don’t catch it? Luck of the draw. The thing-that-just-so-happens happened to just-happen to them. The only knowledge in the face of Cornovirus is knowledge for shifting the odds in one’s favor, not unlike praying to a trickster god in ancient Sumeria. No finite being can make real assurances, after all, for there is no being enforcing logical laws in the particular, that all things should fit, and something may fail to fit today. That’s Haman, that’s doubt, that’s the roll of the dice, a Pur.

This is what Mordechai and Esther name the holiday celebrating Haman’s defeat. Just whose side are they on?

There are so many things to not know. Rather than assuming Mordechai and Esther should be agents for knowledge and enlightenment, we attend to the very core of Purim and find a battle over ignorance, a fight for the soul of unknowing.

Attend: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, may be read as the ‘Day like Purim’. Superficially, they are quite different: Fasting and feasting, solemnity and joy, apologizing and celebrating. Yet on Yom Kippur, we find a striking parallel, a commitment to unknowing:

The High Priest on the Day of Atonement would choose by lottery between two goats, one exiled to die in the desert of Azazel, and the other designated a sacrifice to G·d in the Temple. On this holiest day of the year, not only were the goats chosen by lottery, but the randomness of that lottery is openly emphasized in Jewish law.[i] The goats must be equal in appearance, size, and value, and should be purchased at the same time. We are not to see any reason why one should go to Azazel and one to G·d. A lottery is not, after all, a logical choice, but a random selection among equally-likely outcomes. With minds like human beings or “G·d”, there is arguing. With the lottery, the forces of nature, Haman’s favorite things, there is no arguing. The doubt is inherent.

But the joke is on Haman. He thinks Amalek has penetrated the temple on Yom Kippur. In truth, ranks of infinite angels have praised the lottery, “happenstance,” doubt, and chance long before Eisav first sired Amalek or exile darkened the face of the earth. Haman’s favorite things are the source of all repentance, the essence of Yom Kippur, and even more the essence of Purim.

Repentance is the most powerful force in the universe, without which life would be completely impossible. Even the greatest Puritans, the greatest flingers of fire and brimstone (today often not religious in the monotheistic sense of the word), believe in repentance even as they are rebuking the heathen and condemning him to death. The proof: They believe they themselves are good, not bad. Without repentance, at this stage in history, it is impossible that they can think of themselves as good, and their enemies bad, without a belief in repentance.

This proof holds across widely varying definitions of evil. Repentance is a robust existential proposition, not merely a moral one. Let’s take an outlandish figure from the late exile: Hitler, may his name be obliterated. Old Adolf had an unusual definition of evil, we may all agree. The details don’t matter. What matters is that repentance is the essence of life itself, even for monsters. Just as no story of a sinner’s life does not include sin, no story of Hitler’s life does not include his enemies. It doesn’t matter if you demean those enemies, send them to the gas chamber, deny to the death any association with them—you are causally bound. That is, part of what makes Hitler, Hitler is what makes a Jew, a Jew. He can say he hates it and wants to destroy them; this is what the sinner says about his past. But how can the sinner escape? Just as there is no “pure Hitler” without the Jews because Hitler is defined in relation to the Jews, just as his every move is pervaded by their presence, how he cannot relieve himself without being a Jew-hater relieving himself, so are the sinner’s desire not to sin, his attempts at compensation, his apologies, indelibly tainted with violation. Oh, a sinner is asking forgiveness…?

Hitler, or the sinner, or any who seek to find innocence in the face of perceived corruption, those, in other words, who seek to be good while others are evil, have two options:

1) To refuse to acknowledge any influence. Reject the notion of logical connection per se and declare all actions to be a pure willing-into-being from the self. I am not a sinner; I am nothing but myself.

2) To somehow not be a sinner even while acknowledging the past connection to sin. To rewrite the past with the present.

The former option may be understood as logical, even in its negation of logic, like negative space. The latter option does not provide a means or an explanation at all.

The former is to doubt all defining truth in favor of on’s own will. The latter is to doubt the negation of logic itself, to doubt the doubt, to doubt the question.

The former is to cast a lottery among the actions, no one superior to any other, for no one can know which is preferable. The latter is to soar when one runs out of intellectual road, to do good even when my mind says good and evil are equal.

The former is to say that all actions are equal and so the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai’ is illusory. The latter is to unknow into existence their inner similarity, to transform what is surely as evil as Haman into what is surely good as Mordechai.

The former is Amalek, Hitler, Haman. The latter is repentance and the light of the Jewish people.

But wait, did we not say repentance is essential to every living thing? If Amalek is able to reject repentance in favor of nihilism, of pure skepticism—if it can declare its doubts certain with total certitude—then there is another path, and one doesn’t need repentance in order to live.

Come to think of it, Hitler and Haman didn’t live very long…

We unknow the ‘cursed is Haman’ into ‘blessed is Mordechai’ not through ignorance or an appeal to the inner equality of all things, but repentance. The two goats of Yom Kippur are equal not because G·d and Azazel are equal, G·d forbid, but because we acknowledge that, if LOGIC were used to choose between the saved and the punished, we would be punished. We are not innocent in our understanding. We do not, per the web of causes and effects, do any righteousness unaffected by our past transgression. The only escape is repentance.

Repentance: To transcend G·d’s will for what is right to ask forgiveness from G·d Himself. There is no averting a decree signed with the King’s signet. But the King Himself may still come to our aid and sign a new decree. We may, by dint of our inherent soul-connection with G·d[i], speak to the One Who Wills, the One who may have willed differently.

The true source of all doubt, of Haman, of the darkness of exile, is a place where good and evil are as nothing before Him. There is felt there not G·d’s eternal unrevoked choice of good, but His ability to freely doubt, the fact that ‘good’ may have been ‘evil’ and ‘evil’ ‘good’ before him. That He chooses freely in the way His creations have been allowed to choose freely. That He has never been defined by good and evil, and they have been defined by Him; they, too, are His creations.

From here He can forgive, for from here, things may have been different; from here, He escapes the forms of all His own chosen logics. From here, He can wipe the slate clean.[ii]

How do we reach a place where He is somehow both good and yet not defined by being good? How do we find this place both beyond all knowing and the source of all knowing?

Lean in, say, L’chaim, and hear: The place is inside us.

The secret inner place of unknowing, which reaches into the cruel terror of illogical exile, reveals its inner blessing, and subjugates it in the eyes of all to the One King—its name is Bittul, self-abnegation.

The Jews of Persia choose self-abnegation beyond reason. They choose G·d even on the pain of destruction. Even when their every sense and reason says their existence depends not on a hidden G·d but on worldly considerations, they reject (and so elevate) those reasons and logics in favor of G·d. The correct course of action remains the same, even as they are placed in a position where they may well, according to reason, have chosen the other course of action.

The Jews of Persia are given a situation of doubt, a lottery. They do not know which way things will go. They place a finger on the scale and certainly determine the course of events by turning to G·d beyond all reason. They reveal the lottery to be a means by which they are reminded of the only certainty beyond the limits of logic. That things could possibly go Haman’s way is the callsign of a G·d unbound by any rules, even the rules of exile. The Jews repent, and ‘cursed is Haman’ becomes ‘blessed is Mordechai.’ The genocidal lottery becomes the holiday. The doubt is not removed but transcended, for it, too, is G·dly.

So in the time of doubt, in the time of terror, the solution is not logic and enlightenment. The pure joy of Purim does not lie down that road. All logics and explanations may be doubted. The joy of Purim is the joy of certainty, and certainty cannot escape doubt on a raft of facts. It is the joy of repentance, and repentance cannot escape the past on some new assurances from a sinner.

Certainty transforms doubt as repentance transforms sin, by freely choosing G·d in the dark. The joy of Purim is not an ignorant joy, but simply an unknowing one. It looks at all the reasons and explanations why our existence is difficult and pained and uncertain and sees that they, too, were choices, little messages of G·d, signals that sound in the dark. We catch them, hear them, and come home.

[i] ”From where in the Torah [do I know] Esther? ‘And I will surely hide my face.’ (Deut. 31:18)” Talmud Chullin 139b

[ii] Not knowing G·d is no mere incidental detail in the Purim story. That G·d is not named is no accident, but fundamental to the entire story of repentance under the threat of mass slaughter. In Jewish history, Purim marks the conclusion of the receiving of the Torah, which is one of the reasons it’s the latest book of the Tanakh. It was only in the story of Purim that the Jews truly accepted the Torah, because we only know the relationship is real when it is truly tested. In the concealment of G·d, the people freely chose Him. Purim is the choice of G·d even when he appears to be in no position to reciprocate with blessing. It is the proof that the love continues even when there’s a chance it’s unrequited. His hiddeness is thus integral to the importance of the day, a detail far too important to leave to chance.

[iii] Mishna Yoma beginning of ch. 6

[iv] Amalek’s doubts and its severing of all logical webs also derive from an inner ‘soul truth’, but only by rejecting the logical and finite aspects of the soul. The litmus test here as in so many things is unity. The proof that Amalek is OF the exile rather than redeeming the exile is that they are not alive (souls in bodies) but dead, nihilistic, or insane, the three escapes from unity, the three abjurations of G·d’s purpose.

[v] This place of His Choosing is one of the most misunderstood places in history. The slightest error or impurity in one’s conceptions of G·d, and it is impossible to see correctly. The errors generally fall into two categories:

(a) Those who think that if G·d does not choose the good over evil because of some logic, then good is not really good and evil not really evil. This is the path of the rationalists, ironically named, for it is to ignore the rationally necessary supra-rational basis of all rationality. Indeed, the freely-chosen good is greater than any good by its own definition, since the freely-chosen good is chosen infinitely.

(b) Those who think that because G·d relates totally freely to good and evil that G·d really does not choose between them and that there really is no truth to the difference. Or in other words, that WITH G·D, the details of one’s actions don’t matter, and the entire notion of divinely-commanded morality is superficial. This was likely the mistake of the founder of Christianity and of Shabbatai Tzvi, among others. They do not see how the good itself is rooted in the very being of the chooser, just as they cannot see how the actual finite existence of the world is no contradiction to His infinite unchanging unity.

On Cynical Chassidim

An argumentative tactic that has become a religion in our time is the reduction-to-lowest-quality. You may have heard it used to compare human beings to animals and find no difference, or Israel to Nazi Germany. The trick is not merely to focus on common denominators, which is the basis of probably all rational thought. It is to decontextualize the common denominators, to approach them as if they only lend context rather than absorb it and transform.

Take the example of man as nothing but an animal. Trivially, this is a self-refuting statement. No other animal has ever thought this about their own species; merely by considering ourselves abstractly and expressing this single consideration we pull away from all our neighbors. The reductionist knows this, and it doesn’t matter, because he decontextualizes common denominators. A chimp defecates and human beings defecate; a chimp fights over a mate and so does a man; these common denominators are meant to be determinate.* It is never that the human being’s waste disposal is different because he is able to think about it abstractly. It’s never, “Modern plumbing and meaningful ritual have elevated and transformed this common denominator so profoundly that it’s actually incomparable.” It’s always, “Modern plumbing and meaningful ritual must themselves be an iteration of something chimps do, because look, we defecate!” The common denominator is taken (on faith) to inform the difference and render it irrelevant, rather than vice versa.

This absurd devotion to the lowest in things is different from what we might call mere dispositional cynicism, that wariness attaching itself to mugging victims. These latter pessimists can easily repent, as their fear is conditional and grounded in rational reason. Reductionism, on the other hand, is a deep a priori commitment less easily repaired. The dispositional cynic is afraid of being hurt, so protects himself with distrust. The reductionist is afraid of not understanding so protects himself with willing ignorance. A regular cynic meets you without relying on you. The reductionist refuses to meet you. He fears not things being evil or detrimental, but simply things being things.

In fact, dispositional cynicism could be called a form of realism, for it is merely a certain way of reacting to negativity. A cynic, in fact, would usually argue that the non-cynic has a tendency to be reductionist toward the highest quality, leaving out parts of reality as much as his lowness-obsessed counterpart.

This explains how you can sometimes meet cynical Chassidim. Chassidus is meant to focus on and reveal the G-dliness within each person and experience, and so, in theory, the more one aligns with Chassidus the less cynical one becomes. This may be true, but not necessarily. There are some forms of dispositional cynicism that may be healthy on the Chassidic view. A Baal Teshuva, a penitent who was burned by his past mistakes may sometimes benefit from distrust and wariness toward his own inclination to evil. It does no good to overestimate our own achievement, either, to view our shortcomings as acceptable in light of mitigating factors. Nor are we to be anybody’s fool—Chassidim are meant to be clever. Perhaps, then, there is room for a Chassidic cynic by disposition. But where Chassidus is utterly transformational is in the area of the lowest-common-denominator reductionist.

Every year around this time we have an opportunity to contemplate the Chassidic rejection of reductionism because the daily Tanya has reached the fourth section, the lengthy and formidable Iggeres HaKodesh, consisting of the Alter Rebbe’s letters. These challenge the reductionist every day because so many of them are fundraising e-mails.

At least, that’s what a cynical reductionist might call them. It is vital to note that it doesn’t matter to reductionists how holy and great the Alter Rebbe is; that’s what makes them reductionists. No matter how much G-dly insight, Kabbalah, or deep moral teaching permeates every word of the Tanya Kadisha and it saintly author, the letters are in the context of soliciting money and the author wears a shirt, and that determines. You can dress it up real nice, they argue, but ultimately the Rebbe is climbing up the greasy pole, as Disraeli called it, as much as any telemarketer or politician. For a good cause, perhaps, but the action is the action.

It is the inner fire of Chassidus that burns at this conception with its every word. The Iggeres HaKodesh is, if nothing else, the utter redemption of fundraising e-mails. It teaches us, among many other things, that all greasy poles are created ex nihilo as an expression of an infinite and radically independent G-d, that worldly realities are mere vessels for a divine will, that these vessels are inert and unable to contextualize, that no human being or force of nature can shift one inch the decrees of the True Judge. It is the power of charity not merely to balance our lowest nature but to reverse it, because everything at its root is divine, not by additional context but by its essential being. “Lower” and “higher” are themselves mere means to a G-dly end, and without G-d, nothing can be a whole picture. No common denominator is so low as to escape its own nullification before G-d. What is a pragmatic concern then? How could fundraising ever outrun the G-dly root of its own being?

The Alter Rebbe fears no lowliness, not even enough to need to deny its lowliness. Pragmatic concerns are just as G-dly as the theology of Shaar haYichud v’ha’Emunah; perhaps more so. Everything, exactly as it is, shines the light of G-d. Do not despair.

*Evolution as presented is not merely that man’s origin as a species lie in animals, but that these common denominators are deeper and truer in him than what makes him a man, not unlike how hydrogen and oxygen are presented as deeper and truer to water than water’s own properties. These reductions ought always to be questioned.