“Coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous,” my family’s rabbi likes to say.
The Jewish festival of Purim, which took place this past weekend, brings this proverb to life. The holiday celebrates the Jewish people’s overcoming a plot devised by Haman, a fifth century B.C.E. Persian vizier, to murder the Jews en masse. The story appears in the Book of Esther, which is chanted in synagogue on Purim. Children come to synagogue in costumes, à la Halloween. When the chanter mentions Haman, congregants shout and wave noisemakers to blot out Haman’s name. Yet amid the revelry lies a strange fact: The Book of Esther is one of only two books in the Hebrew Bible without the word “God” (the other being the Song of Songs).
Thus, Purim takes on the question of how we can discern our spiritual purposes in a world in which God stays anonymous. The task was easy in Abraham’s world: Just listen for God’s voice, booming from the skies. Some feel that in our era, God still orchestrates each detail of human society (e.g. Mike Huckabee’s declaration, regarding his rise in polls, “There’s only one explanation for it, and it’s not a human one”). Many people rightly mistrust this extreme, yet also cannot abide its opposite: the idea that events are entirely random, so our lives bear little more significance than the chemicals that compose our bodies.
Between these extremes lies a middle path: meaning in the absence of miracles. Consider one litmus test of our generation, “Avenue Q,” the tale of a college graduate seeking his life’s “purpose.” How do we find purpose in a world where the skies stare mutely back at us?
The story of Purim offers a suggestion. At a banquet, King Ahasuerus of Persia demands that Queen Vashti “show” guests “her beauty, for she was good to look at.” (Charming.) Vashti refuses. Ahasuerus dethrones her and holds a contest for the most beautiful virgin to be the new queen. Esther wins. Later, Haman the vizier grows incensed that Mordecai, as a Jew, refuses to bow down to him. Haman designates a day during which, by royal decree, all Jews are to be slaughtered. Grief-stricken, Mordecai convinces Queen Esther — his cousin — to plead to the king on the Jews’ behalf. The king, outraged at Haman’s plot, executes Haman and gives Haman’s signet ring to Mordecai, who issues a new decree stipulating that the Jews may lawfully attack any force that attacks them first.
And because one person, Vashti, refused one small (albeit humiliating) request — and because another person, Esther, won a beauty contest — an entire people escaped genocide.
Vashti could never have known that her personal choice would shape all of history. But for Esther, the story is different. The events leading up to her ascension were random, yet ultimately, they were far from meaningless. It is a stirring coincidence that just when the Jewish people desperately needed an advocate in the palace, Esther had become queen.
The best word for Esther’s situation — seemingly random, yet significant — comes from physics: “chaotic.” 20th-century scientists like Edward Lorenz discovered “chaos theory” and its central idea, “the butterfly effect,” or, more technically, “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” The idea is that some systems are so sensitive that a small adjustment in initial conditions can dramatically change what happens later. The famous example of this theory is that a butterfly can flap its wings and transform weather conditions worldwide.
The beating heart behind both chaos theory and the Book of Esther is the uncanny chanciness of life. Both reveal how much of our lives hangs by a slender thread — neither predetermined nor totally haphazard, but rather dependent on small factors that may seem insignificant and that often elude our control.
This idea underlies the moral duty with which Mordecai charges Esther. To convince Esther to plead before the king, Mordecai says to her: “Who knows if you reached the queenship for such a time as this?”
Mordecai is not saying God moved Esther like a chess piece. That may be, but “Who knows?” What is certain is that Esther is smack in the middle of the “butterfly effect.” Small, unlikely events have wrought enormous, positive changes in her life. These changes, in turn, give Esther the agency — and the moral duty — to make enormous, positive changes in the world.
How does all of this look to God? According to the Book of Esther, that is God’s business, not ours. God remains silent. Mordecai, unlike Mike Huckabee, does not invoke His name.
But Mordecai does suggest that when we look at the seemingly random events that brought us to our present states, we may see significance amidst them. It may be neither preordained nor even necessarily objective. Our particular lives’ meaning may exist only in our eyes. But if the significance of our pasts, and that of our present, can show us what to reach for, and remind us of our moral obligations, then these things amount to purpose and spirit in our lives.
Noah Lawrence is a junior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.