The Zen Buddhist path is known for celebrating a state-of-mind called “not-knowing,” sometimes termed “beginner’s mind”. In this childlike state of wonder and innocence, we look at the world as it is, without our usual assumptions and preconceptions. We let down our mental defenses, allowing ourselves to be more intimate with reality.
It is less well-known that many traditional Judaism sources offer a similar teaching. In fact, many might find this downright surprising, as the most common forms of Jewish practice seem to strongly privilege the intellect and knowledge. This is not the place for a comprehensive history of rationalism in our tradition, but suffice to say that Greek philosophy and the Enlightenment wielded a significant influence over how our people’s thought and practice developed.
Yet for many of our great spiritual teachers, Purim is the apex of our tradition’s embrace of not-knowing. This theme lies at the heart of both the Purim story, the Megillah, and our festive celebrations. Its is, in fact, central to its great joyfulness, which is unparalleled in our calendar.
Given that our mystics elevate Purim even above Yom Kippur (Tikunei Zohar 21, p. 57b), which is commonly revered as the holiest day in our calendar, the festival and its emphasis on not-knowing deserve thorough investigation .
Beginning with the story of the Megillah, the Talmud teaches that when the evil Haman was drawing lots to choose the date for the Jews’ annihilation, he made a crucial error.
When the lot fell on Adar, Haman rejoiced greatly, for he said: “The lot has fallen on the month that Moses died!” And he did not know that on the 7th of Adar, Moses died, and on the 7th of Adar he was born. (Megillah 13b)
Haman is the epitome of a wicked, vindictive villain. But his mistake here is not so dramatic or extreme. He did something that most of us do very often; he made a decision on the basis of specific information. From the talmudic perspective, Haman was quite correct to assume that the month of Moses’ death would be a challenging one for our people, but he neglected to consider how Moses’ birth might affect the equation.
In his certainty that he knew all the relevant data, he brought about his own destruction.
There are many other examples from the Purim story where this principle surfaces, but nowhere as powerfully as the conversation at the crux of the whole Megillah, between the heroine and hero, Esther and Mordechai. While trying to convince Esther to risk her life in order to speak up for her people, Mordechai speaks the key words of the entire story:
“Do not imagine to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house from among all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father’s household will perish; and who knows if you attained your royal position for a time like this?” (Esther 4:13-14)
Who knows?! Consider how high the stakes are at this point: the entire Jewish People is bound for annihilation. Mordechai is apparently certain that the people will be saved, somehow. But even though he is trying to convince Esther to risk her life, he does not feign certainty about her role in this drama. In stead, he throws up his hands in humble not-knowing.
Esther is convinced by Mordechai’s honest, open-ended approach and she assumes control of the situation, setting in motion a chain of events that saves her people. In the course of that process, everything that Haman had planned, that seemed so solidly grounded on facts, is turned neatly on its head, providing us with one the Megillah’s most celebrated, quoted and sang verses:
And so, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—when the king’s command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, [the decree] was inverted, and the Jews got their enemies in their power. (Esther 9:1)
And while we sing these words celebrating the inversion of Haman’s plan, we perform a ritual unique in our entire tradition. We intoxicate ourselves, as the talmudic sage Rava instructs us, until we “do not know the difference between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordechai’” (Megillah 7b).
Rava might have said that we are to intoxicate ourselves until we do not know night from day or left from right. But instead, he specified attaining a state beyond any moral certainty. It is not merely who Haman and Mordechai are that he urges us to lose sight of, but their moral standing.
In other words, Rava wants us to entirely release our moral compass. This is a shocking and potentially dangerous suggestion. Not surprisingly, many of our sages have sought to minimize its application, but nonetheless Rava’s teaching still offers us an insight into the spiritual work of Purim.
We witness the spirit of his teaching in the performance of three other Purim rituals: disguising ourselves, giving gifts to friends and listening to the Megillah.
Despite a calendar full of festivals and other opportunities for celebration, we mask ourselves only on Purim. In doing so, we embody the hidden truth of our own identities and of the mysterious Source of all Life, who guides the events of the Megillah, and the world, with a hidden hand.
We send gifts to friends as part of our festive celebrations, and the custom has evolved to do so via a messenger, adding an element of mystery and playfulness to the act.
And as for hearing the Megillah, knowing it or reciting by heart is not sufficient to fulfill our obligation; it must be read carefully from a scroll, and every word should be heard clearly. The Megillah, in which the Divine is not mentioned but merely alluded to, must be listened to as if for the first time, with what some might call beginner’s mind.
The final month of our calendar might seem like a strange time for such an emphasis on beginning, but in fact Purim is the perfect spiritual preparation for Pesach, which always falls on the following full moon. As the great Chasidic master, Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin, taught, by entering into a state of not-knowing on Purim, we merit the illumination of Pesach (Likutei Ma’amarim Months and Festivals Ch. 5).
One way of understanding this is that since Pesach is a festival of rebirth and recreating our own story, the not-knowing of Purim is the necessary act of pressing Reset on our conscious mind, to allow for something new to emerge. So happy beginner’s mind – Purim Sameach!