WHAT ARE THE ODDS?
Rabbi David Walk
Did you ever start flipping coins to see if it's really fifty-fifty between heads and tails? If so then you would have noticed that the more you flip the closer you get to the magic median. However, I'm not sure that's true in the NFL where the coin doesn't actually have to flip to be a coin toss. Hence the big flap after a non-flip coin toss at a recent overtime thriller between the Green Bay Packers and the Arizona Cardinals. Many cheese-heads are still piquant as limburger on the subject. Somehow it doesn't seem right that a coin toss should over shadow the action on the field during a sporting event. It's supposed to be about talent and effort, right? But what about Purim? Is the emphasis on the personal behavior or on the casting of the lots? What can we learn about the importance of chance in history and destiny in our understanding of the Purim tale?
It's hard to ignore the importance of the lottery to the story of Purim, because we actually decided to name the festival after that exercise in chance. As it says in the Megilla, 'Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews, had plotted to crush and destroy them on the date determined by casting of a lot (pur)… That is why this celebration is called Purim, because it is the ancient word for casting lots (Esther 9:24-26).' Was this done to mock Haman? Last week, I wrote that one of the basic differences between us and Amalek is the belief in chance. They see all history as a throw of the dice. While we are like the prophet Daniel, we often see a (metaphoric) hand of God appearing before our eyes guiding us and history along the proper path. So, this is a perfect opportunity to discuss my favorite point of view on chance and divine guidance before we get back to Purim.
We also use lots. On Yom Hakipurim, which our Sages compare to Purim, because of their homophonic names, we draw lots to see which goat will be sent to the wilderness and which offered on the altar. Why? Although there are many reasons suggested, I like to think that we're being taught that wherever our lot lands us, in a holy precinct or in the wilds, we must see ourselves as fulfilling God's purpose. I believe strongly that the significance of lots and happenstance are important because we are being informed that much of what happens follows the laws of nature and, sometimes, blind luck. Rav Yitzchak Blau, a former colleague for whom I have much respect, wrote a wonderful article on VBM, the superb Yeshivat Har Etziyon web site, in which he explains the position of Rav Yisrael Lipschutz (1782-1860, the Tifferet Yisrael). Rav Lipschutz explains the discussion in the last Mishneh of Kiddushin on earning a living as a prototype for a philosophy of the natural order in the world. He first attacks belief in astrology (following in the footsteps of Maimonides), and then explains, 'Furthermore, mazal is not a reference to astrology but to the flowing (nozel) power of natural forces.' He avers that God generally prefers nature to run its course. Rav Blau contends, 'While we imagine that R. Lipschutz would not object to the religious notion that misfortunes should inspire us to repent, he would reject a simplified mechanical application of reward and punishment that would evaluate every bruise as divine punishment,' and concludes, 'The nation cannot simply rely on righteous behavior but must use human planning and effort within the natural framework in order to succeed.'
So, what does all this mean for Purim? Does the absence of God's name from the Megillah really demonstrate an absence of God from the story, and, therefore, from history? Of course, not! We believe in two principles called hashgacha clalit (general Divine supervision, natural laws) and hashgacha pratit (specific Divine supervision, miracles or the temporary suspension of the rules). Most of the time, the laws of nature as laid down by God in the Creation control the action down there on the playing field. But once in a while special circumstances call for Divine intervention. No one who observes Purim in any traditional manner can possibly maintain that God was absent from the scene. That's why the second blessing over the reading of the Megillah is 'Who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days, at this season.' And we also recite the Al Hanissim (Concerning the Miracles) paragraph during our prayers on Purim. We bear witness to God's participation in the story. Many incidents, both daily and throughout history, just happen, but Purim isn't one of those natural occurring events. We declare and testify every year that God manipulated and supervised the occurrences surrounding those days in Shushan.
The Maharal (Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague, d. 1609), who is the great philosophic connector between the medieval and the modern, wrote, 'Nothing is more important than the redemption of Israel, and God doesn't leave the big things to chance (mikreh, Gevurot Hashem, ch. 19, and many other places).' Esther, Mordechai and the Sages wanted us to know that Purim is one of the 'big things' by writing and canonizing the Megilla. We are celebrating so many wonderful occurrences on Purim, but the biggest is our recognition of God's supervision behind the scenes. That's the way of things in our post-prophetic world, and that's why Purim will be celebrated even after the final redemption.
So, keep expecting the coin to follow the rules of statistics, and live your life as if you're in total control of your destiny within the expectations of natural phenomena. But, remember, just like Esther, when you're involved with issues pertaining to the destiny of the Jewish people, God's hand and guidance will become manifest. When we say 'the destiny of Israel will not be denied (I Samuel 15:29)' we mean God maintains control over Jewish history, even when we can't see the Divine hand.