“You wanted to know what gave me so much drive… It was you. You put me in that brothel (When I was a child). You cut me on the streets. I am here now, because of you. You created me. And for that, I bless you… you make sense of the devil.” –Arthur: Legend of the Sword. 2017
“Remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity…”–Abraham Joshua Heschel
It’s almost that time of year again! Purim! The time of masking up! (Don’t worry, you won’t get fined if you don’t!) When we get so drunk that we don’t know who we are blessing or cursing!
Our sages tell us that the general consensus is–despite some differences of opinion on the over-consumption of wine–that on Purim, we are to get so drunk that we don’t know the difference between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai. OK, so wait a second. We’re celebrating an ancient victory. Yeah, the saying goes, “They tried to kill us, they didn’t, let’s eat!” But really? I’m gonna get so drunk and confused that I might just make the mistake of blessing Haman? What the heck is going on here? Haman was basically Hitler with a turban! A direct descendent of the nation of Amalek, who we are to remember to always fight against. In essence, Haman represents all that is evil in the world. Mordechai, the great man of his generation, obviously represents what we could say is all that is good. He stands up to evil. He doesn’t comply with the mandate to bow down to evil incarnate.
Of course, the book of Esther details what happens. Haman is insulted by Mordechai not bowing down to him, so he decides to commit genocide on all of the nation of Israel. (That escalated quickly!) Haman then receives permission from an apathetic Achashveirosh (Emperor of the empire at that time), and set a legal date in which all Jews are to be wiped out. It looks bad for all Jews throughout Persia, but Mordechai has an ace in the game–Esther his niece, cousin, and some even say his wife is taken against her will by Achashveirosh, and makes her queen. Thus, when Esther reveals herself to be part of the Jewish nation, he has Haman killed for attempting to kill his queen and the nation from which she comes. Mordechai then takes Haman’s place as chief advisor to the emperor, and legalizes Jewish rights to arm and defend themselves on the day which was declared by Haman for them to all die. In the end, the Jewish nation is victorious.
It’s a wild story, and makes for a fairly epic, and almost comedic drama.
Yet, what are the spiritual implications?
And once again: of course we are going to bless Mordechai and curse Haman! Why the heck would we be encouraged by our spiritual leaders to not know the difference as we celebrate?
In order to answer these questions, we must go to the historical context.
During the time of the Persian empire, the state religion was Zoarastrianism–a kind of dualistic religion in which two deities were in a constant struggle between each other–one god was “good,” the other was “evil.” The purpose and ideology of the Persian empire was to essentially carve out a place on earth for the good god, and conquer the evil one. Thus every battle that ancient Persia fought had religious implications. The purpose of empire of Persia was of the utmost importance: Bring all the world under the banner of the “good god” in the religion.
In the ancient world itself, as idolatry grew in the early days, we arrived at a place in which we looked at the physical chaos of the world–which on some level we the human race caused through our own pursuit of impurity–and eventually began to believe that the highest spiritual Force was fragmented and chaotic (Picture Greek gods raping women, Babylonian gods deciding to flood the earth because the people on earth were making too much noise while building their houses stuff like that…), thus the belief in the worship and even manipulation of spiritual forces grew exponentially.
(The downward progression in early human history from monotheism to polytheism in early human history is outlined in Rambam’s Hilchot Avodat Kochavim, which essentially states that all the world did indeed believe in One Creator at first, but then began to focus on homage to His “ambassadors” and “emissaries” as well, until the Creator was either forgotten or looked upon as a deity that created the universe then went absent. Indeed, in both Hinduism which boasts of being the “oldest religion” and Zoarastrianism, the narrative runs that there was a Creator, who after creating the world, “retired” and gave dominion over to the other deities who were lower than him in stature. Hence both religions pay no attention to the Creator in the narrative, and focus their worship on the lesser deities.)
Zoroastrianism, though not a religion of many gods, is still a polytheistic religion–the belief in two equal deities–one good and the other bad–locked in a long term conflict. If there is a constant warfare in the above spiritual realms, then there must be constant warfare below. Thus at this time in history, the Zoroastrian religion fit perfectly into the Persian assertion for global empire. The result of the need for ultimate global empire is the constant entering into warfare. Zoroastrianism’s worldview was that there were two gods controlling the universe and constantly at war with each other, and thus in essence, the universe and all the spiritual worlds were in a state of chaotic flux. In the face of so much war, death and destruction, a son of Amalek like Haman could easily find his way in. Indeed, in the history of this first Persian Empire there was a constant progression of coups and assassinations against the shahs that took power–often times against close family members themselves. “Chaos is a ladder.”
We contrast this with Judaism, and find something very different. Judaism states that there is only One G-d. By the halachah, we are to say the Sh’ma Yisrael three times a day. “Hashem our God, Hashem is One.” Of course Judaism believes that we are to fight against evil, to bring light to the darkness. Yet, there is still a vast difference between Zoarastrianism and Judaism. We all know Judaism has the “Satan” (Hebrew for “Accuser), but of course in Judaism, he is basically an angel. Contrast this with Zoarastrianism, and even Christianity, and we have a strong difference at play here. Satan in Judaism is basically taking orders from G-d. He’s not a rebel.
To then quote Abraham Joshua Heschel, “To say that G-d is only somewhere is to almost say that He is nowhere.” Thus, when we limit where G-d is in our minds, we too become “followers of Zoarastrianism,” believing in “two or more gods,” instead of one, G-d forbid. To say that G-d is One is to say that all is according to His fantastic will. That “Ain od Milvado” (That at the deepest level, “There is nothing besides Him.”) To say that G-d is One in the Persian/Zoroastrian world was ideologically revolutionary. To do such a thing was, and even today–though most of us take it for granted–is to be an extreme optimist.
In Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed, he states something very interesting:
“…The truths which the Torah teaches us–the knowledge of God’s Existence and Unity–create in us love of God as we have shown repeatedly… The two objects, love and fear of God, are acquired by two different means. The love is the result of of the truths taught in the Torah, including true knowledge of the existence of God; whilst fear of God is produced by the practices prescribed by the Torah.” Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed, Part 3, Chapter 57.)
To elaborate further on this idea of knowing G-d’s love through meditating on His Oneness, I want to turn to perhaps a more unusual source. In his once private work which is now published, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus writes:
“The universe is either a confusion, and a mutual involution of things, and a dispersion; or it is is unity and order and providence. If then it is the former, why do I desire to tarry in a fortuitous combination of things and such disorder? And why do I care about anything else than how I shall at last become earth? And why am I disturbed, for the dispersion of my elements will happen whatever I do. But if the supposition is true, I venerate, and I am firm, and I trust in him who governs.” (Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book Six. Though there are certain Roman pagan references made in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, there is a strong implication of monotheism and monotheistic references as well in this work. Indeed, there are those who say that it is very possible that Marcus Aurelius converted to Judaism, per the friendship of Emperor “Antoninus” and Rebbe Yehudah Hanassi.)
In my humble opinion, this is one of the most monotheistic statements that I have ever read. Though Aurelius in his book uses Greek religious references in other places, this statement in essence says that despite the apparent chaos on this universe, that there is a hidden Unity behind it. If there is not, then why the angst of expecting anything to be better? Yet to know that there is true Goodness that comes from the One, while extremely optimistic, is a life worth living and embracing. Marcus Aurelius, though a king of the greatest empire of his time, was not a stranger to hardship and seeing the brutality of the world. He fought in wars, had extremely heavy administrative duty to tend to, suffered loss and betrayal, and even had to bring Rome through a difficult plague during his life. He saw death and seemingly meaningless suffering, no mistake. And yet, when it came to real life, He believed in Ultimate “Meaning beyond (hidden behind) absurdity.”
In returning to Rambam’s statement, what does it mean that we can find love in the Oneness? In perhaps one respect we can say that yes, we all came from the One. We all will return from the One. Thus, there is great connection in the Oneness of G-d. To truly absorb the fact and truly feel that I am a holy spark of the One Creator is to feel an embrace, a Divine “hug.”
Thus in essence, in contrast to Zoroastrianism which states that the Creator “retired” and left good and evil to battle it out (“May the best god win!”), Judaism says of G-d that “Malchut’cha malchut kol olamim…” (“Your kingdom is a kingdom of all universes…” Psalm 145:13) The very word for “universe” in Hebrew also means “hidden,” as if to say, G-d’s presence is hidden in this world. Thus in all things, He hides. He hides in the suffering in this world. The victim of genocide. The rape victim. The orphan. Even down to us who have it better than the horrific atrocities of this world of hiddenness–but nevertheless–in your depression, discouragement, anxiety, G-d’s “kingdom is a kingdom even within all hidden things” that can be told to no one. Inside of your own personal universe full of scars, pain, brokenness, and even horrors, Hashem is still with you. That ultimately, at the end of the day, “my pain is G-d’s pain.” That even in my darkest hour, I am not alone.
Hence in Babylonian Talmud Tractate Megilah 3a, we read that whoever is afraid should pray the Sh’ma Yisrael, which affirms that even in my darkest hour, that G-d is One–that there is Oneness and love behind the pain and uncertainty.
Thus our battle with Amalek is not an existential one that reaches up to the highest Heavens like in Zoarastrianism, but is part of our growth process in our mission to sanctify the world. Oh yes, we are to fight and completely eliminate Amalek and the Hamans of this world, but we fight with an awareness that within evil resides sparks of holiness.
For anyone who has seen the face of evil, this can be hard. How can it be that the most horrible things that happen, are yet all “part of the plan?” It’s easy to see the world as fragmented and chaotic in such a state. Yet, this is why depression, nihilism, and apathy can be so harmful. It damages our connection to the One, because in those moments when we give in to our own darkness, we are essentially saying in our heart that G-d is not here, that he is not one. (It should be noted that this is extremely hard these days, and we shouldn’t let ourselves get discouraged, but to remember that we are always loved by our Father, our Creator.)
“In this world man has to pass over a very narrow bridge. To get across it, you have to be without fear… But through the merit of Shema (“Hear oh Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One) nothing will make you afraid. ‘Hashem is with me, I shall not fear.’ (Ps. 118:6) You can have perfect faith in God because the whole earth is filled with his glory. He is with you always. ‘I will have no fear, what can man do to me?’ Through faith you can win every battle…” (Rebbe Nachman’s Restore My Soul.)
Hence with this high awareness, we can look at the Amaleks of this world and within our own personal lives–our doubts, our discouragements, our falls, our breaking points, and stand up and say like the Arthur did to his own personal demon which he was doing battle with in the clip above: “You wanted to know what gave me so much drive… it was you. You put me in that brothel (When I was a child and an orphan). You cut me on the streets. I am here now because of you. You ‘created’ me, and for that I bless you. You make sense of the devil.” When this happens, Amalek essentially disappears. (This I would assert is extremely high level to achieve such a constant awareness and we should be careful of trying too hard to achieve such a thing. We must be patient with ourselves as life is constant growth, and know our strengths and limitations.)
This is when we arrive and this high, special awareness at this high, special time of Purim. We arrive at a very special, meditative, “drunken confusion” of realizing the Oneness of our Creator. Hence, we truly do become confused between blessing Mordechai and cursing Haman, because Ain Od Milvado! (“There is nothing besides Him!”)
To truly believe in the Oneness of G-d, we see “our Father, our King” in all aspects of our lives. To know that “there is meaning beyond absurdity,” that even though we fight evil, that there is goodness beyond our pain here.
May we all have a Purim full of joy in the basking in the Oneness of our Creator! L’chaim!