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The possibilities at the edge of chaos: Purim and the present panic

Our ordered reality is threatened by a super-virus, politics, and our fear of the unknown. I say we embrace that precariousness and rise on up out of the chaos
'Esther before Ahasuerus,' by Franc Kavčič. (Wikipedia)
'Ahaseurus and Haman at the Feast of Esther' by Rembrandt. (Wikipedia)

Enuma Elish and Megillat Esther

In the ancient Babylonian myth of Enuma Elish, Marduk, who possesses four eyes round his head and a hefty amount of confidence in his own infallibility, is appointed by all the gods as the chief warrior capable of battling against the mother of all gods and the epitome of chaos itself — Tiamat and the supreme monster she created, Kingu. He succeeds in obliterating Tiamat through trapping her in a net and killing her, as well as Kingu and creates the world out of Tiamat’s waters and humanity out of the blood of Kingu. All the gods and humanity are indebted to the supreme and unchallenging wisdom, power and strength of Marduk forever after. This ancient myth comes to resolve some of the most ancient ideas humanity has grappled with from its inception; dualism, chaos, nothingness, authority and autonomy. It answers these challenges in a binary way. There is order and chaos, good and evil, light and dark. It is imperative that humanity allows the order, good and light to win over all the other forces, or we will be forced into a reality of incessant war, uncertainty and darkness. Its narrative is one that sees humanity as inherently monstrous and evil creating chaos, disorder and uncertainty. The only solution is to acquiesce to a greater, better and more authoritative power that can reign over these dark forces. That power resides in the heavens, and dictates our mortal life here on earth.

The reason this Babylonian myth held scope for many thousands of years and became a template for so many other myths and even modern day films and dramas (think of fairy tales, Disney and Hollywood movies) is because it touches on an a deep existential truth. Every human being in every place and at every point in history grapples with fear of the uncertain, the unknown, the void, the abyss of nothingness. Today in a postmodern world after the failure of modernity’s constructs and progressive promises this is perhaps the question we face. We all seek an answer, the answer. We impose, onto an often chaotic and unsettling reality, superficial structures of order – good/bad, right/wrong, pure/impure, holy/profane to alleviate the dissonance we feel. One only need look at recent history to see how this plays out in so many guises. The fear of the unknown, of the unexplored territory, of the chaos come, is what impels us towards fundamentalist positions. It is what leads voters to opt for radical parties, it’s what creates a society of fear and isolationism – a them/us duality, and ultimately it is what paralyses us, impeding our ability to act. It impels us to the known, comfortable, status quo, even though it may be corrupt and regressive.

Esther as an anti-mythological narrative

But there is another alternative. There is another way of dealing with the chaos and the uncertainty besides enclosing it in a net, as Marduk does, of structure and order. The anti-narrative to the Enuma Elish myth neither blinds itself to the nothingness, nor chooses a binary fundamentalist position as a response to fear and uncertainty. Instead it embraces it as an opening, as an opportunity to exercise the most fundamental of all human characteristics; choice and responsibility. This anti-narrative is expressed in Megillat Esther. Named for the Babylonian God Marduk, and Ishtar, Mordechai and Esther face a similar fate to the gods at the time of Tiamat. Chaos ensues as regaled in the narrative’s anti-hero Haman, and with it the monstrous intention of destruction and evil. But unlike Marduk, Mordechai replaces hubris with humility, certainty with cognitive humility. The story of Esther is not about gods with eyes in all directions that represent the unfailing hero. Instead we see a very human, very vulnerable hero who recognizes his own limitations. ; וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ–אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת – who knows if for this moment you came to royalty. (4:14) Mordechai has no prophetic clarity, no eyes at the back of his head, no divine tablets on his chest. He is immersed in the nothingness, the chaos come, the uncertainty. Threatened with destruction and annihilation he rents his garments, he exposes his vulnerability and goes torn and ruptured, to the unexplored territory; the door of the kings palace. But equally, he refuses to allow fear to paralyze him. This is the message he imparts to Esther. It is true we ‘don’t know’ but perhaps this cognitive humility, the ability to ‘let go’ of all the certainties and structures we have built is also a moment of redemption. Until now redemption has emerged from the hand of the Divine; until now we have had direction from the prophets and priests; this has been our structure, our certainty, our accepted norm. But perhaps this a moment in redemptive history that we need to find the courage to ‘let go’ of what we have known, leap into the chasm of nothingness and from there use the human gift of choice and free will to dictate our redemptive actions. In ancient myths, and even modern-day tales, the hero is the character that travels into the unknown to redeem it and consign a new order. That same hero however is pretty sure of himself, representing the divine mandate in the form of the perfect, the good and the holy; the binary structure is re-instated, and humanity is forever indebted to him/her. The Purim story represents a paradigm shift. When we let go and enter into unknown territory we face our fear through engaging with risk. Esther intuits this in the statement she proclaims “ “כאשר אָבַדְתִּי, אָבָדְתִּי– “if I fail I fail” or perhaps more literally – “If I get lost – I get lost”. By entering the world of ‘who knows’, embracing her limitation and vulnerabilities and acting in a morally responsible way, she defies the classic paradigm of the mythological hero/ine.

There is yet another way Megillat Esther acts as a mythological anti-narrative. In the myth of Emuma Elish, the hero, Marduk goes to battle alone promising victory at the price of everyone else’s submission to his absolute authority. Esther, on the other hand, knows that humility requires us to act in partnership. Redemption cannot be achieved alone, action as responsibility is something that requires communal collaboration – לֵךְ כְּנוֹס אֶת-כָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים הַנִּמְצְאִים בְּשׁוּשָׁן, – go and gather all the Jews. Matanot levyomin, mishloachei manot, all these laws of Purim express this idea- Redemption through covenant.

The Jewish hero is no binary construct. Even in Torah none of the characters are without their flaws. Neither wholly good or bad, pure or impure they are riddled with doubt and uncertainty. What makes them heroic is the choice to immerse themselves in the chaos and arbitrariness of human living, and continue to act for God and humankind.

Humanity today and its challenges

The world today is the most progressive and discovered it has ever been; medical breakthroughs, technological development, scientific scholarship has never been greater. And yet most of humanity experiences sentiments of dislocation. We lack purpose and meaning in our lives. We search blindly in what can only be described as a gaping existential void. Furthermore, when we are faced with moments of crisis, such as today, we have no idea how to respond to the ‘unknown’. This global and existential crisis provokes two general reactions. The first is to fall into victimhood, viewing ourselves as the objects of a malevolent environment that has cast us into a random and pointless set of circumstances that we have no control over. This leads to fear which unravels into blame and ultimately leads to radical and fundamental choices to help ‘protect’ us from the enemy of our fate. The second response is to accept the void and understand that life is indeed fragile and volatile. Just when we set up shop in the certainty of modern medicine a virus with no cure rears its ugly head. To accept the limitation of our humanity is to live with humility but it need not be a recipe for nihilism or fundamentalism. But there is a third way that is expressed in the festival of Purim. That the void, the nothingness, the absence opens us up to the awareness of the divine gift of free will and choice. Purim is the most joyous of festivals precisely because it represents the act of letting go. When we embrace the precariousness of life – that one minute we can be feasting at the table of the king and the next we can be subject of the kings destructive intent, and still find the means to celebrate life and joy – this is the moment we become true covenantal partners with the Divine. As the Talmud in Shabbat 88a intuits, seeing the thunder, lightening and divine presence at Sinai was surprisingly not the moment we truly accepted the Torah. It was only in the dark putrid corridors of Achashverosh’s palace, in the morally suspect circumstances of our redemption at the hands of some very human actors, that we became authentic partners in the divine covenant. Why? Precisely for the reason we spoke of before – because we refuse to fall into the abyss of nothingness opt for action and responsibility even if the redemption we pursue may turn out to only be temporary…for now.

The world today stands at a crossroads. Once again arbitrariness threatens to engulf us. Once again, our ordered structure of reality has come crumbling down in the face of a super-virus that threatens our structured existence and which ironically emerged from one of the most ordered and ‘certain’ regimes on the planet. Once again in politics, social media, and society we see the fear of the unknown leading to binary and dualistic choices and perspectives. Once again there are many who are choosing either radicalism or nihilism. Let’s look at the upcoming festival of Purim for guidance. Let’s choose to embrace the precariousness and fragility of our existence and allow it to open up a chalal reik, an empty space (a term used in kabbalah and mysticism and more poignantly in the thought of Rav Shagar) from which to reconstruct and make responsible choices rather than leading us down a path towards the absurd. Let’s remember that whilst Marduk succeeded in trapping chaos in a net and killing her, generating order and structure; the price humans paid was humanity itself – choice and autonomy. Let’s continually recall Mordechai’s incisive words “who knows if for this reason” to remind us that only through humility, sincerity, and authenticity as well as active responsibility will we be able to face chaos and uncertainty without resorting to mendacious, malevolent and radical measures.

About the Author
Tanya White is an educator who teaches Tanach and Jewish Philosophy in Israel and abroad. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Jewish Thought. She writes a weekly blog on the Parsha combining Jewish thought and current affairs at www.contemplatingtorah.wordpress.com
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