Friday, March 03, 2023

Living with Uncertainty


The Execution of Vincent Fettmilch in 1616, 17th Century, Artist Unknown

Purim is a perennial holiday. The Encyclopedia Judaica lists nearly 100 different local holidays called Purim Sheni (Second Purim), that celebrate the miraculous rescue of that community’s Jews. Purim was observed well beyond the 14th and 15th of Adar; and one gets the impression that in the diaspora, Jews saw their entire lives from the perspective of Purim. 


Cairo’s Jews held a Purim Sheni in commemoration of events that took place in 1524, when the local governor, Ahmad Shaitan Pasha, rebelled against the Sultan Solemain. The head of the mint, Abraham Kastro, was a Jew and he refused to mint currency in Ahmad Shaitan’s name. Imprisonments of Jews followed, and Ahmad put in place a plan to massacre the Jewish community and plunder their belongings. Just in time, Shaitan was attacked in the bathhouse by his own officers, and after fleeing, was caught and executed. The community embraced this as their own Purim story, and the Megillat Purim Mitzraim declares:  


The Jews, therefore, who dwell in Cairo ordained and took upon themselves, and upon their children, and upon all who join themselves to them, to fast on the twenty-seventh day of the month of Adar, and to read this scroll on the twenty-eighth day of it, and to make it a day of feasting and rejoicing. 


A similar Purim Sheni was held in Frankfurt. It was called called “Purim Vinz,” named after the villain, Vincenz Fettmilch, a grocer who led a local uprising. On August 22, 1614, Fettmilch incited a mob to attack and loot the Jewish Quarter; two Jews were murdered. The entire Jewish community, nearly 2,000 people, was expelled from Frankfurt. On February 28, 1616, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Matthias, arrested Fettmilch and executed him; on the same day, the exiled Jews were led back into Frankfurt by imperial soldiers. Yoseph Norlingen, the rabbi of the community and the author of Yoseph Ometz, decreed that the 20th of Adar would be a local Purim, and like Purim, be preceded by a fast day on the 19th of Adar. 


Not everyone agreed with the practice of local Purims. Rabbi Hezekiah da Silva, the 17th-century author of the Pri Chadash, opposed the practice of local Purims and maintained that the ability to declare new holidays stopped after the destruction of the Temple. But the consensus opinion was to meticulously observe these fast days and holidays. Rabbi Moshe Sofer, who was raised in Frankfurt, writes that he, and his teacher Rabbi Nathan Adler, would continue to observe Purim Vinz well after they moved away from Frankfurt. 


The proliferation of local Purims raises a question: why were they called Purim? Why weren’t these holidays given a new name? Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory theorizes it is driven by “a resistance to novelty in history”; for medieval Jews, the present was a repetition of the past, and both were one and the same. Calling a local miracle “Purim” was a way for Jewish communities to connect their current events to sacred history. 


However, the insistence that these local Purims include a “Fast of Esther” and a reading of the Megillah, essentially a full recreation of the Purim ritual, tells us something about their view of Purim as well. Yes, they believed that history repeats itself, over and over. But they didn’t make second Passovers or Second Hanukahs. They believed that Purim uniquely reflected their experience in the diaspora more than any other historical event.  


Purim is an incomplete holiday. There is no Hallel on Purim; the Talmud explains that this is because “we are still the slaves of Ahasuerus.” (Megillah 14a) Rav Amram Gaon ruled to recite the Tachanun prayer, which is ordinarily omitted on other holidays, on Purim. This would seem to indicate that Purim is not a full holiday. 


Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik explains that this is because "what happened on Purim was not of a permanent nature. They were saved, of course. However, no one could guarantee that the next day the same story would not repeat itself. That is why there is no Hallel." In another essay, he points out that the very name Purim, lots, is based on Haman’s lottery to choose a date for the annihilation of the Jews; and he sees this choice of name as emphasizing the random nature of history. He explains, “thus, the name Purim expresses the erratic capriciousness of events. It alerts the Jew to the sudden turns of fortune, lurking dangers, the fickleness of life, even as the lot itself seems to operate through blind chance.” To Rabbi Soloveitchik, Purim has tragic undertones; the triumph of Purim is incomplete. Another Haman can arise at any time; and not in every generation does a miracle occur.   


Rabbi Soloveitchik is correct in pointing out how Purim is incomplete; but I would argue that is not unfortunate. In fact, the very incompleteness of the Purim redemption is what makes it so important, and what inspires so many Purim Shenis. 


There is a strange passage in the Talmud (Megillah 7b) “A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until the point that they do not know the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordecai.'” Leaving aside whether this should be one’s practice on Purim, (many rabbinic authorities strongly condemn the practice of excessive drinking,) the text itself is paradoxical: it says one should celebrate to the point that they forget why they are celebrating! Amnesia is the very goal of the Purim celebration. 


But forgetfulness has its virtues. Purim teaches us that we can’t rely on the successes of the past; we will need to confront Haman and Amalek once again, the very next day. We must leave behind today’s celebration and confront tomorrow’s challenges. 


Purim is an etch-a-sketch redemption; we see its beauty, only to watch it disappear. Another crisis arises, and we must draw up another solution. There was one Purim in Persia; but there will be other Purims everywhere, and in every era. 


Humans abhor uncertainty; we are constantly in search of stability. Purim reminds us that no matter what, life remains a lottery. And just like there was a crisis yesterday, there will be a crisis today, and there will be another crisis tomorrow. Instead of hiding away in an imaginary palace, we need to take control of our destiny.  


We must accept, and even embrace, the uncertain life. This is not a tragedy; it is reality. The very purpose of Purim is to encourage others to follow in the footsteps of Mordechai and Esther, and show courage and determination in the face of uncertainty.  


This is a forgotten skill. When life is comfortable, courage gets lost. Even the smallest threat can send ten of thousands into a panic, taking cover from a worry that their great-grandparents would have laughed at.  


A few years ago, I shared a dinner with Yiftach Reicher Atir, a retired Israeli General who had participated in Operation Entebbe. At the time he was a young officer in a Sayeret Matkal unit. There were many memorable anecdotes shared that evening, but one, in particular, stands out. During the dinner, someone asked him: “What happened the day after you got back?” The expectation was that these soldiers must have had a celebration, a whirlwind of receptions in their honor. But that wasn’t what happened. Atir explained that all the soldiers came back to the base the next morning, and they “had another commander, and another mission.” 


“Another commander, another mission.” There is no time to relax because the task is not yet complete. 


This is the very lesson of Purim. No triumph is final. Uncertainty is the only thing in life you can truly count on. Every single day, we have a new challenge; and we must always undertake that new mission with courage and determination.  


And if we continue to do so, we will have the opportunity to celebrate many a Purim in the future.

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