Why Purim Matters – Fate and Destiny


Today is Purim, the holiday that celebrates  the victory of the Jews over Haman’s genocidal faction in ancient Persia, during the Babylonian exile.  As always, there are questions.

On most holidays, Jews recite a set of Psalms of praise and thanksgiving collectively known as Hallel.  We do recite it on Chanukah.  We do not recite it on Purim.  Why?

Rav Yosef Soloveitchik argues that the reason is that Chanukah established Jewish independence, and therefore regaining control over our own destiny.  Purim, on the other hand, was a reprieve, but one that left our fate in the hands of a king and a system that had been proven arbitrary.  (The difference between Fate and Destiny is one that Rav Soloveitchik explores in greater depth in an essay, later released as a short book, by that name, Fate and Destiny.)  Purim thus established the “Fiddler on the Roof” scenario, the shtetl paradigm, that would come to dominate and define Jewish existence for most of the next 2500 years, interrupted only by the 2nd Commonwealth.

And arrested again by the establishment of the State of Israel.

While many times Ahashveraus, the Persian king, is depicted as foolish, rather like the king in Aladdin, the rabbinical commentators see him as considerably more malevolent, anywhere from looking for a reason to exterminate the Jews to hostile, and willing to let himself be persuaded in the matter.  They note that it was under his rule that reconstruction on the Temple came to a halt, under obstacles and threats from the throne.

Which brings us to today.

While history doesn’t repeat, President Obama is certainly doing a fine, fine Ahashveraus impersonation when it comes to Israel.  His hostility is manifest, and even if he’s not willing to take positive action himself on the matter, he doesn’t seem very interested in doing anything to impede Israel’s neighborhood enemies.  His recent on-again-off-again veto or not of yet another Security Council resolution on Israel was designed as much to show the Israelis who was in charge, as though Israel really believes it can willingly alienate an American president.  His lecture to American Jewish leaders that they need to “search their souls” on Israel’s (and their) desire for peace, made the implicit threat almost explicit.

Much of the point of Fate and Destiny is the difference between being active in your future, and being passive, at the mercy of other people and forces.  (I’m not sure if the essay, written to provide a theological basis for Orthodox support for Israel, uses the Purim-Chanukah comparison.  Undergoing an Omahavian exile myself, I don’t have access to my copy.)  Unfortunately, then, as now, too many Jews are more comfortable acting under those parameters.  It is too much like a replay, at a national level, of the deals-for-today that Jews had to make for centuries for their communities to survive.

Instead, we should be acting forcefully to shape our own future.  Forcefully doesn’t mean recklessly or insultingly.  But as an Orthodox Jew and a patriotic American, I believe that Israel’s interests & principles, and those of the US coincide far, far more often than they collide, and lucky for me that they do.

Right now, when we have a President who shows himself to be uncertain at best about American interests and principles, the temptation is to try to ride things out.  But such decisions, taken cumulatively, have long-term consequences.  It’s one of the reasons why I supposed Sharon’s disengagement strategy – it was an attempt to seize the initiative and set the terms of the debate, and but for his age and health, it might have succeeded.

We need to remember that we do have another choice.  We are lucky to live in an age when we can choose Chanukah over Purim.

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