In the Casino of Life – Sermon for Ki Tissa 2015

  1. Esther finally gets her moment

This morning, I will not analyze Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Pundits and political scientists have already dissected the speech, reviewed the personal drama of Bibi vs. Barack, and considered the strategic implications of the United States’ Iran policy. I have no intention of reviewing today what you can already read elsewhere.

However, there is one element of the speech that is worth mentioning. At the beginning, Prime Minister Netanyahu said:

“Tomorrow night, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, we’ll read the Book of Esther. We’ll read of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago. But a courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther, exposed the plot and gave for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies.

The plot was foiled. Our people were saved.”

At that point, congress got up to give a round of applause. As Charles Krauthammer  put it: “Queen Esther got her first standing ovation in 2,500 years.”

And Esther truly deserves the ovation. She teaches us a critical lesson, one that is useful every day of our lives: The art of living in the casino of life.

  1. In the casino of life: reversals

The Book of Esther is about וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא, “it was reversed”. Reversal occur, over and over. Haman ends up being “hoisted by his own petard”. He loves power and hates Mordechai, and yet all his plans are reversed. Haman and Mordechai switch places on the horse, on the gallows and eventually in the Prime Minister’s office. And the Jews and their enemies switch places, with the enemies of the Jews being the ones who are defeated, and what was to be a Jewish day of mourning becomes a day of rejoicing.

The celebration of Esther is a celebration of good fortune. In it one must note how much progress the Jews have made in such a short period of time, going from the enemies of the state to its rulers.

And if I may digress for a moment, it is important for us today to recognize how remarkably history has turned in the last 70 years.

  • It is remarkable that the same people who were at the verge of destruction 70 years ago now have a state for the first time in 2,000 years.
  • It is remarkable that the same country that refused Jewish refugees for almost all of World War II is now receiving the Prime Minister of Israel into the halls of power.
  • It is remarkable that the most powerful country in the world now has a congress so supportive of Israel and the Jews that they give a standing ovation to Esther!

We must appreciate the reversals, the good fortune we now have, which is precisely what we celebrate on Purim.

  1. In the casino of life – the random and the absurd

But there is more than reversals to the Book of Esther.  Strangely enough, the holiday of Purim is named after a minor element in the plot. Haman, when deciding when to destroy the Jews, draws lots in order to pick a date.  The holiday is named after the ancient word for lots, in commemoration of the lots drawn by Haman.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik asks the question: why name the holiday after the lots? They would seem to be a small, insignificant detail in the story.

Soloveitchik’s answer is that the holiday recognizes the “erratic capriciousness of events”. Even if we know that there is a divine plan, it is carefully hidden from us. And in the Book of Esther, we experience life not as a structured divine plan, but rather as a series of random events. The lives of Mordechai, Esther and Haman, (and the fate of the Jewish people), go up and down the carousal, without any clear pattern.

The random and constantly changing events make it feel like one is sitting at the roulette wheel in a casino, unsure what will come up next.

As humans who search for stability, we hate the upside down nature of fate, and grasp on to anything that makes feel secure. We search everywhere for the hidden name of God.

But there are times when everything seems so random, so confusing, that we have nothing to grasp on to; we are even unsure if Haman or Mordechai is good or bad. “ad delo yada”, “until one doesn’t know”, is actually the situation throughout the Book of Esther.

And in an “ad delo yada” world we feel like life is absurd, a casino where the dice are being rolled with no rhyme or reason.

And it’s into this casino that Esther walks in.

  1. Life as Random

We may not realize it, but all of us are sitting with Esther at the roulette table.

We assume that things are meant to be the way they are.

David Hume, when arguing for a deterministic view of human nature, makes the following argument:

 “If an intimate friend of mine, whom I know to be honest and wealthy, comes into my house where I am surrounded by my servants, I rest assured that he isn’t going to stab me before he leaves, in order to rob me of my silver ink-well; and I no more suspect such behaviour from him than I expect the collapse of the house itself which is new, solidly built, and well founded.” (Concerning Human Understanding VII)

We expect honorable people to remain honorable. We expect that “olam keminahgo noheg”, the world to stay the way it is.

But this is not the only face of reality. Yes, we shouldn’t be worried our Shabbat guests will mug us after dessert. But there are times when a shocking turnaround does occur.

Nicolas Taleb, in his books “Fooled By Randomness” and “The Black Swan”, offers an view of a world where you cannot predict what will happen next. His outlook is profoundly influenced by having grown up in Lebanon, which was a prosperous and peaceful paradise on the Mediterranean…until it wasn’t. The outbreak of civil war in 1975 upends the lives of Taleb and his family, and exposes Taleb to a “Purim” way of seeing the world.

To Taleb, there are Black Swan events, unexpected and dramatic like the first discovery of a black swan, that transform the world in ways one cannot predict. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the rise of Hitler, and 9-11 are all events that couldn’t have been predicted. And they are all events that transformed human history.

It is Taleb’s view of history that the Jews know too well. We know it from the Holocaust, in particular.

Jews in Germany had felt so comfortable, so at home. Amos Elon, in his book “The Pity of it All”, describes the Jews in pre-war Germany as an elite group that had risen to the leadership of the country. And German scholars were so critical to Biblical studies, that the joke was: “what is the most important Semitic language? German!”.

And yet it fell apart. Observers at in the early days of the Nazi regime can’t believe what is actually happening. And what is remarkable is that perhaps the most cultured and developed country in the world came to perpetrate a brutality that is unheard of in human history, one which cannibalistic tribes would blanch at.

In the Holocaust, the Jews are the dinner guests that are stabbed by their host after having a civilized and polite dinner together.

  1. Esther beats the odds

What do you do when everything looks like an absurd lot, a completely random fate?

What does Esther do when she enters the Casino of Life?

Well, certainly one needs faith. We can’t forget that even in darkness God hears our prayers.

But you need more than faith.

In the essay “Fate and Destiny” Soloveitchik speaks of the importance of responding to the absurdity and randomness of evil by rebelling and fighting back. That even if fate mocks us, we need to do everything we can to take destiny back into our own hands. We need to take on responsibility, and accept  what we are demanded to do and commanded to do.

That is what Esther does. She may be the forgotten Jew cut off from her people in the palace, and the forgotten princess ignored by the king, but she does what she can to change destiny. She risks her life to defy a powerful Prime Minister, and because of her there are still Jews here today.

Esther triumphs, which is why she deserves a standing ovation every year: for entering the casino of life and defying the odds.

And that is what Jews have always done in the casino of life. We know all too well that the absurdity of life, yet we continue to do what is right, and move forward.

And our choices, generation after generation, have led us to this point. And if you think about it, the very history of the Jewish people is a black swan, and unpredictable event that is dramatic and unexpected.

When Prime Minister Netanyahu said: “this is why… I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand”, he was speaking for all Jews.

We have been determined to stand, even if others predicted over and over that we would disappear. We have always made our own destiny, just like Esther did.

And like Esther, we always walk into the casino of life and refuse to accept the odds.

Shabbat Shalom!



About the Author
Chaim Steinmetz is senior rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City. Rabbi Steinmetz has been a congregational Rabbi for over 20 years, and has previously served pulpits in Montreal, Quebec and Mount Vernon, New York.