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The Ultimate Question: Why?

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.

The streets were quiet late Sunday evening as I pulled into my driveway and stepped out of my car. I had already reached my front porch when I heard hurried footsteps behind me, crunching on the snow. I turned quickly, but didn't register much about the man bounding toward me except the ski mask over his face and the gun in his hand.

He asked for my wallet. I gave it to him. He searched through it, found no cash, and dropped it on the ground. He told me to empty my pockets, asked for my car keys, and rummaged through my glove box. Again he found nothing. Then off he ran, leaving me to hurry inside and punch 911 into the phone.

The whole episode probably took less than three minutes, and from beginning to end I don't think my heart rate increased a beat. He never said a threatening word; indeed, he was almost polite. He didn't force his way into the house, didn't put the gun to my head, didn't order me to lie down on the concrete. It was surreal. He even tossed me my keys before he ran off, with the absurd admonition to "have money next time."

By the time the police arrived I was shaking. There had been a robber but I couldn't describe him. There had been a gun and a car, but in the dark I couldn't see well enough to describe them either. Nothing remained of him except a footprint in the snow.

Nothing had been taken from me — except my peace of mind.

Before the end of the week I began wondering whether it had happened at all.

Perhaps the Jews of Persia felt the same way 2,360 years ago.

One day, every Jewish man, woman, and child had found himself under a death sentence from King Ahasuerus and his wicked viceroy, Haman. And literally the next day, every Jew found himself restored to grace: The leader of the Jews, Mordechai, had replaced Haman as viceroy, while Haman himself had been hanged from the gallows he had built for Mordechai. Jews far and wide must have marveled at such a dramatic turnabout, quite possibly wondering whether they had ever truly been in danger.

It would have been a fair question. The Talmud records that the students of Rabbi Shimon asked their teacher what the Jews of Persia had done to incur the death penalty. The rabbi replied that they had bowed down to an idol, which Haman had worn on a chain around his neck.

But they only appeared to bow down to the idol, the students protested, because they had believed that not bowing down to Haman would imperil their lives. Indeed, answered Rabbi Shimon, which is why they only appeared to be in any real danger.

A remarkable insight, that Haman had never posed a genuine threat to the Jews, that their lives and the existence of their entire people had never been stake, that any appearance of danger had in fact been nothing but an illusion.

According to Rabbi Shimon, the Jewish people did not escape a narrow brush with death, but had been made to believe that their lives were on the line to compel them to make a cheshbon hanefesh — an accounting of the soul: to look into their hearts, to examine their deeds, to evaluate their attitudes, to contemplate their character, to seek out any possible reason to explain why they felt themselves estranged from their Creator.

In the case of the Jews of Persia, their near-fatal flaw had been to lose trust in their Father in Heaven. They had known it was wrong to bow down to Haman, but they had believed they had no choice. After three days of fasting and reflection they realized that what they had done thinking to save themselves had, or at least appeared to have, put their very survival in jeopardy.

And what of my encounter with a man hiding behind a mask and a gun?

I may spend months or years contemplating that question, making my own cheshbon hanefesh again and again. But it was not lost on me that my own apparent brush with death came three days after the bombing of Jersualem's Number 19 bus that left ten dead and fifty injured. Like the people who got off the bus a stop before the blast or thought to board a stop later, my own life was merely the squeeze of a criminal's finger away from a violent end. Was I really in danger, or was I only close to danger to make me ask: Why me? Why them? Why now?

Until the day when we stand before the True Judge we can never answer such questions with certainty. But to ask the question, to search for answers by searching every corner of our souls, that is the path toward wisdom and righteousness, the path we should all walk as we seek to understand the most impenetrable mysteries of our own hearts and strive to make ourselves worthy of every step we take under the heavens.

Originally published in 2004 by Jewish World Review

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