March 17, 2011
Purim and the tsunami
Purim seems to have come at the wrong time this year. It’s Adar-be Happy! But how can we be happy when there are images of destruction all around us, as Japan plunges into a nuclear disaster of huge proportions on the heels of a 9.0 earthquake and a terrifying Tsunami? How can we joyously wave our gragers against the evil Haman when we are deluged by images of tens of thousands of people swept into the sea? How can we celebrate this holiday when our world seems to be spinning out of control?
Not only is it Adar, but a year of “double Adar”, when the Jewish calendar equilibrates itself by adding an additional month to the year. My personal doubts about this month of double happiness began in Adar 1, when a small spot on my nose blossomed into a skin cancer problem of what seemed like epic proportions. In an effort to contain a microscopic basal cell, a dermatologist shaved the skin off of the entire end of my nose. I emerged from her office with an early Purim costume, looking like Bozo the Clown. I had not planned for this. I was entirely out of control.
Which brings us to the secret of the story of Purim. The very name Esther, young Jewess who takes heroic action to save her people, comes from the Hebrew word “nistar” or hidden. The secret of Purim is that the name of God does not appear in the story because “It is all God”, and when the masks that contain all life are stripped away, there is really nothing left but the raw energy of the life force, the vitality that “enlivens” the world. As we seek to contain our life in the vessel that is our body and the world around it, we seek to control this force. A small skin cancer races out of my control, and the only comfort is the compassion and help of the people around me. Someone needs to step up, like Queen Esther, and say, “Rabbi, I have a way to help”. God does not appear in the Purim story, because unlike the Passover story, where God openly manipulates the energy of plagues and seawalls, on Purim we are on our own. On Purim, human action, not God’s action, makes all the difference.
On Purim, the masks are stripped away. Haman is revealed as the embodiment of the Evil Force, Esther and Mordecai stand for The Good. But we are asked on Purim to get so drunk as “not to know the difference between Haman and Mordecai” because ultimately, (and this is Purim’s secret!) everything, all energy, contains both good and evil. It is in our human hands to bend that energy as a force for the good. Atomic energy, which is produced by stripping away the containers of individual atoms, releases a raw power that is neither good or evil, but carries the potential for both-it is up to US to make the decisions that strengthen the positive aspects of this power as we contain it to power our lives.
But are we in control? Sometimes, our control is overpowered or seduced away by the “sitra achra”, the negative force, which works through our own tendencies toward greed or anger. Atomic weapons proliferate. Inspections are falsified. The ozone layer is knocked out by fossil fuels, and skin cancer erupts. And sometimes, yes, “stuff just happens”.
The name Purim literally translates as “lots”, a multiple of the Hebrew word “pur”. Purim means the dice or “pur” that Haman throws to decide in which month the Jews are to be killed. There is a chance factor beyond our understanding that is beyond our control, and as human beings, we can only decide how to react to its results. Why did the 9.0 earthquake happen in Japan this time, and not California? Why did the tsunami rush inwards, and not across the ocean to Laguna Beach? We are powerless to control certain forces of nature, and, as in the Purim story, we can only take up arms to combat the evil when it has been unleashed.
On Purim, and we are called upon- no COMMANDED- to celebrate, and to embrace life, with all of its potentials. In the face of death, we are to choose life, and take our chances. The nose on my Purim mask reveals it all.