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Purim and the Limits of Imagination

This Thursday Jews around the world will be celebrating the Festival of Purim, perhaps the most misunderstood of all Jewish holidays. I'm devoting this week's posts to contemporary insights drawn from this ancient observance.

According to a survey — before the recent economic downturn — about 20 percent of Americans believe themselves to be among the wealthiest one percent of the nation. Another 20 percent anticipate that they will one day claim membership among the wealthiest one percent. In other words, two out of every five Americans believe that they are or will possess enough wealth to be in the top one out of a hundred.

One might describe this kind of rosy optimism as wishful thinking. One might better describe it as delusional.

The potency of imagination powers the engine of human achievement. Whether we aspire to fight for civil rights, to seek a cure for cancer, to write the great American novel, or to win the New York marathon, we never take the first step until we envision our own success, no matter how certain or improbable our chances of success may be. But as the line between reality and fantasy grows increasingly blurry in Western society, imagination does not spur us on toward success but prods us blindly toward the precipice of self-destruction.

Such was the myopia of the Jewish people under Persian rule 2,365 years ago when King Ahasuerus and his viceroy, the wicked Haman, conspired to annihilate the Jewish people. The Jews had thought to appease the king by attending his party, a banquet conceived to celebrate their failure to return to Israel after 70 years of exile. They thought to appease Haman by bowing down to him and the idolatrous image he wore upon a chain hanging from his neck. They thought appeasement and compromise and contrition would preserve the comfortable life they had grown used to in exile, far from their half-forgotten homeland.

Despite all their efforts, the axe fell. But the executioner's blow never landed, checked in mid-swing by the divine hand, which concealed itself within a long series of improbable coincidences.

In the world of superficial cause-and-effect, the Jews appeared to owe their salvation to the random workings of fate. But it was no coincidence that their reversal of fortunes hinged upon the very moment when the invocations of Mordechai and Esther rallied their people to cast off the yoke of assimilation, no matter how imprudent such an act of defiance may have seemed.

It wasn't wishful thinking that turned the hearts of the Jews back toward their Creator; it was the clarity that remained after all their schemes had failed and they were left staring into the cold, harsh light of reality.

Today, however, the light of reality shines neither cold nor harsh enough to make us open our eyes. Millions rally for an illusory peace to be won by appeasement before an expanding international culture of terrorism. Voices cry out against the leaders of democracy and in support of the enemies of mankind, urging us to walk the path of peace by laying down our arms before our enemies. Their anthem, it seems, echoes from a generation built on dreams and surviving on pure fantasy:

Imagine there's no countries, It isn't hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, No religion too, Imagine all the people Living life in peace...

Like Marxism and countless other utopian visions, it's a lovely notion. Like its title, however, it is a dream existing only in imagination. Like its author, it is nothing but fantasy destined for tragedy.

Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can, No need for greed or hunger, A brotherhood of man, Imagine all the people Sharing all the world...You may say I'm a dreamer, But I'm not the only one, I hope some day you'll join us, And the world will live as one.

The world will indeed live as one, but not by wishing or imagining utopia into existence. Simple answers to complex problems rarely yield lasting solutions.

The holiday of Purim teaches us that peace comes only with the triumph of good over evil, a triumph that must be bought and paid for by standing up, speaking out and, when necessary, taking action against evil.

Originally published in 2009 by Jewish World Review

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