Dedicated to the memory of my father, Dr. Benjy Freedman, Binyamin ben Menachem Mendel, a holy balaganist who passed away on the 12th of Adar, 5757.
My father, of blessed memory, had a funny song he was fond of singing from time to time. It went something like this:
“Hey, Tippi Turtle, what ya gonna do today?
First I’m gonna bother everybody I meet, then I’ll go home and get drunk.”
Tippi Turtle (who Google reveals was actually an SNL sketch) is what they call around these parts a balaganist, and I think my Abba liked to fancy himself something of a balaganist as well, in the most positive sense of the word, someone willing to turn the world upside down in pursuit of authenticity and truth, and in his rejection of falsehood, pretense and fakeness.
Purim is the Jewish holiday of balagan par excellence, and I’ve always had a hard time seeing how that fits in with my idea of what Judaism is all about. The balagan of Purim is especially odd in light of the fact that it seems to fit more than anything with the outlook of Amalek, progenitor of Haman, the arch-enemy of Purim.
Amalek first appears on the scene one verse after the Torah states how the Jewish people doubted God- היש ה’ בקרבנו אם אין. Chasidut teaches that Amalek is numerically equivalent to the word ספק- doubt. Amalek stands for uncertainty, lack of clarity, lack of purpose. Our encounter with Amalek is described by the word אשר קרך בדרך- who chanced upon you on the way, and the Midrash connects this same root to Haman, Amalek’s descendant. When Mordechai tells a clueless Esther, via Hatach, about Haman’s plot, he details all that had happened- את כל אשר קרהו. The Midrash in Esther Rabah connects the dots. “Go tell Esther,” Mordechai says “that the grandson of chance (בן בנו של קרהו) has come upon us.” Indeed, Haman decides which date to destroy the Jewish people by lottery, by chance. Amalek stand for chance, randomness, a lack of order, a lack of clarity and purpose. In short- balagan! So why is our Purim so Amalekite?
Perhaps we need to understand Amalek a little differently. True, their starting point is a belief in the randomness of the world, that the world is chaos, governed by chance. But the real evil of Amalek is not about their belief, but about their politics- what do they do with this belief? Amalek encounters a world of chaos, and takes upon itself to impose order.
It is for this reason that Amalek is the first to attack the Jewish people, the upstart nation of slaves who dared to overthrow the most powerful empire in the world. Rabble rousers! Don’t they understand that the hierarchy in place is necessary to maintain an orderly world? That for the world to run smoothly, the powerful must be in control of the weak? And within this nation of agitators, who do Amalek attack first? הנחשלים אחריך. They attack the outliers, the people who don’t fit in, who upset the orderliness of the camp.
This is exactly the problem that Haman has with Mordechai, who, in the spirit of classic Jewish chutzpa, refuses to submit to the hierarchy Haman has established. But Haman is wise enough to discern that Mordechai’s behavior is symptomatic of a national character. When he comes to Achashverosh, his complaint is not about an individual, but about an entire people “whose laws are different than every other nation, and who do not follow the procedures of the king.” Agitators. A Nation of Tippi Turtles. Haman’s final solution is the only way to preserve social order.
The Jewish victory: a day of balagan, a day when we undermine every man-made, social convention we’ve so carefully constructed over the course of the year. The distinction between rich and poor- the mitzvah of gifts to the poor on Purim is fulfilled by given to anyone who outstretches their hand. The distinction between male and female – Jewish law allows for cross-dressing, a Torah prohibition, but one defined by the social norms of what constitutes men’s and women’s clothing. Even the distinction between allowed and forbidden, and between good and evil are challenged. It’s the ultimate chutzpah- even the evil of Haman’s deeds is undermined by the mitzvah of drunkenness “until one can no longer distinguish between Haman the cursed and Mordechai the blessed.” As Yom Kippurim is a day of examination and re-evaluation, so does Purim invite us to one wild day of re-examination and re-evaluation of the social order we have established over the year. Tippi Turtle would be proud.
Purim not only overturns Amalekite attempts to create order, it also suggests an alternative way of looking at the world. Amalek sees a world of chaos, and imposes order. Jewish tradition suggests much the opposite- a God-crafted world which is fundamentally good and ordered. Articulating the way the Torah and the Megillah present this alternative, and the role of the human being in this beautiful Divine world we’ve been presented, will have to wait for another time. It’s Purim day, and it’s time to enjoy some balagan.