Predictable Surprises: Post Purim Reflections

The story is told of a simple woman who attended synagogue regularly, and would weep each year when the story of Yosef and his brothers was read. Her behavior was so predictable that it became a bit of a synagogue joke. Those who sat near her would anticipate her cries each year when the story of Yosef being sold into slavery was read.

One year she did not cry.

Her fellow congregants were so surprised that after services they asked her why it was that every year she cried for Yosef, and this year she did not.

She replied in all sincerity, “If he is stupid enough to go to them again this year after what they did to him for the past ten years, then I’m not crying for him.”

This year on Purim, I had a sense of déjà vu as we read the Book of Esther. It seemed to me that there were no surprises- and it wasn’t just because I had heard the story before. You see, Haman, the wicked man, acted exactly as wicked people have acted in all generations. Mordechai, the Rabbi, acted exactly as Rabbis do, urging people to maintain high standards, and leading them in teshuva and renewal in times of crisis. Even Esther, the heroine of the story, acts in a most predictable fashion. In times of crisis- when her nation needs her help- she proceeds to do what needs to be done for the benefit of her people.

To the point that I began to wonder why the Book of Esther was recorded at all. After all, I couldn’t find a single extraordinary event in the entire story. Haman’s behavior, Mordechai’s behavior, and Esther’s behavior are most predictable. Even Achashveirosh, the king, gets swayed, first by one prime minister, then by another, in a most predictable fashion.

But I believe that therein lies the lesson of the Meggilah. Because, although the behavior of the characters was predictable, they still had free choice to do either good or bad. Haman could have chosen not to attempt genocide. Mordechai could have chosen to shirk his responsibility as a leader of the Jewish people, and Esther could easily have refused to cooperate with the plan of salvation. The actualization of what we could have predicted is the expression of free choice which is celebrated in the story of the Meggilah.

Often in life we experience the opportunity to actualize a predictable surprise. For example, if someone were to call you to be the tenth in a minyan for a neighbor who needs to say kaddish, your good natured response is fairly predictable. Likewise, if your sibling, who is responsible, needs a short term loan to avoid credit
card debt, and you have the money, we could anticipate your response with a fair degree of accuracy. Nevertheless, there is free choice, and when you actualize the predictable, it is still considered monumental.

The lesson of Purim is not in people acting in a way that is surprising. The behavior of the key characters is fairly predictable. The lessons of Purim are that there is evil in the world, that good people should do good things, and that when they do, G-d will intervene to orchestrate salvation.

With best wishes for a wonderful Shabbos,

Rabbi Mordechai Rhine
Young Israel of Cherry Hill
Torah Links of Cherry Hill