The evening sky in the northern hemisphere has been dominated in recent weeks, even for those of us who live in cities, by 3 planets: Venus and Jupiter appearing in the Western sky after sundown, and Mars rising in the East soon after. I am sure that our early ancestors would have found deep meaning in this arrangement of the skies. The planets meandered across an otherwise predictable firmament – they were the random element that, if interpreted correctly, could tell us the will of the gods.
Later, we were able to predict even the motions of the planets, and even understand their movement in terms of predictable laws as Kepler traced out the ellipses of their orbits, and Newton explained their motion through his law of gravitation. Many believed that all of the Universe could be explained deterministicly – that with enough information we could predict everything that happened for all time.
In the early 20th century this belief was challenged. From the vastness of the Universe, we turned to the sub-microscopic world of the atom and discovered that randomness was at the basis of the laws of nature. Large scale deterministic behaviour is simply the result of the statistics of large numbers – but any phenomenon that can be affected by individual quantum events (like the behaviour of our brains) is fundamentally unpredictable.
Purim is a holiday named for randomness – for the very dice that Haman rolled to determine the date for the extermination of the Jews. The Megilla says that “[Haman] rolled the die, which is the lottery (גורל).” (Esther 3:7), using the word גורל, which in the beautiful irony of the Hebrew language also means “fate.” Is our fate a lottery? Is history really determined by random events?
Perhaps the double meaning is teaching us a lesson. The seemingly random events of the Megilla add up to a fateful decision on Esther’s part to save her people. The unseen divine hand directs coincidence after coincidence, from Esther’s ascent to the throne to the King’s nighttime choice of reading, leading inevitably to Haman’s fate on the gallows. If our fate is not a lottery, perhaps apparent randomness hide an underlying purpose.
Mordechai entreats Esther not to be silent and hide in the palace from the fate of the Jews. Salvation will surely come, but that does not excuse her from action. As Rav Baruch Gigi of Yeshivat Har Etzion pointed out in a class I attended this week, our belief in ultimate salvation does not preclude enormous pain and suffering on the way, as anyone who lives in the shadow of the Holocaust knows. Haman’s plot of total extermination was bound to fail, but Mordechai did not take the threat lightly. Even a partial fulfillment of Haman’s plans would have been a disaster.
We are again faced with a threat from Persia. It is a threat based on devastating weapons created from our understanding of the randomness of the quantum atom, and on a Haman-like desire to destroy the Jewish people. Our leaders must decide how best to meet this threat. It is not a decision I envy them. There are no easy answers. If Esther hesitated before risking her own life in going to the king, how much more so should our leaders be afraid of the consequences of a military strike that could easily spiral out of our control. On the flip side, a rational analysis would say that we have the deterrence to prevent any use of an Iranian nuclear weapon – but are we ready to bet our lives on that analysis?
In his speech in the US this week, our Prime Minister promised to “ensure that Israel remains the master of our fate.” Whatever he decides about Iran, I wish he took a less arrogant tone. Whether one believes in planets determining our destiny, in a universe of random coincidences, or a divine hand shaping our fate, one thing we never are is masters of our own fate. We plan, we act, perhaps we pray, but we can never really know from which direction our salvation will come. A little humility in the face of this reality should be a key ingredient in our decision making.