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Fooled by Randomness

The Purim story unfolded over a protracted period, but we celebrate the holiday on the fourteenth of Adar. The holiday is unusual, in the sense that with most holidays, something happened on a given date, and we celebrate the holiday on its anniversary. That’s not quite the case with Purim because half the story, and the name itself, revolve around why events happened on that particular date.

Haman, the antagonist, decided to mandate a legal genocide, a one-day purge against the Jewish People. He had it all figured out; he’d bribe the king, draft the law, enact it. That’s bad, he’s bad; it’s not hard to understand. But in a puzzling turn of events, he wasn’t sure when his law should take effect, so he cast a lottery to determine the right day and settled on the fourteenth of Adar – עַל־כֵּן קָרְאוּ לַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה פוּרִים עַל־שֵׁם הַפּוּר.

Casting lots is distantly removed from our primary experience, and seeing as it is a core feature of the holiday in some sense, we ought to take it seriously.

Why did Haman cast a lottery?

Today, we understand that a lottery applies randomness to confound any notion of certainty or predictability. When a process can generate all outcomes with equal probability, we will perceive the resulting outcome of that uncertainty as fair. The Torah uses this randomizing methodology to select goats for sacrifice on Yom Kippur and to allocate the tribal lands of Israel.

Today, we would use a coin toss as a conventionally reasonable way to decide between two equal options, heads or tails. It’s intuitive, it’s fair, it makes sense, and there’s nothing to argue about – בַּחֵיק יוּטַל אֶת־הַגּוֹרָל וּמֵה’ כּל־מִשְׁפָּטוֹ / מִדְיָנִים יַשְׁבִּית הַגּוֹרָל וּבֵין עֲצוּמִים יַפְרִיד.

Either goat can be the scapegoat; it doesn’t matter at all. Which portion of land goes to which tribe doesn’t really matter. It could be any, which is the point; that’s why it’s fair.

But that’s not the only way the ancients used lotteries. 

Ancient civilizations would also cast lots as cleromancy, a form of divination where they would attribute Divine Providence to the outcome – השגחה פרטית. By removing human choice and influence over what course of action to take – so the thinking went – destiny and fate could reveal themselves. The Torah uses this form of lottery to expose a looter, Achan, who illegally claimed spoils in the Book of Joshua; to identify that Jonathan had violated Saul’s command to fast; and by Jonah’s Gentile shipmates to reveal that the terrible storm was his fault. 

Cleromancy, the second form of lottery, has nothing whatsoever to do with fairness or uncertainty. It’s about ascribing not just certainty but divine significance to a random outcome, treating it as the Divine Will, and proceeding accordingly. Achan was the guilty looter, and no one else; Jonathan had broken the vow, and not someone else; Jonah, and not some other sailor or passenger, was responsible for the storm. These individuals faced real consequences in the physical world due to the perception of their divinely ordained guilt through cleromancy.

The Torah explicitly forbids utilizing this second form of lottery multiple times in uncharacteristically strong terms – לֹא תְנַחֲשׁוּ וְלֹא תְעוֹנֵנוּ / לֹא־יִמָּצֵא בְךָ מַעֲבִיר בְּנוֹ־וּבִתּוֹ בָּאֵשׁ קֹסֵם קְסָמִים מְעוֹנֵן וּמְנַחֵשׁ וּמְכַשֵּׁף… כִּי־תוֹעֲבַת ה’ כּל־עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה וּבִגְלַל הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵלֶּה ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ מוֹרִישׁ אוֹתָם מִפָּנֶיךָ… תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ.

Whether magic is real and this is how it works doesn’t matter; what matters is that people ascribe divine significance to cleromancy and act accordingly – that’s the superstition the Torah takes great issue with.

To hone in on why Haman cast lots, we need to determine which kind of lottery he utilized.

Laws take effect whenever they are relevant – you can ban membership of a terrorist group instantly, but you’ll draft tax laws years in advance so that everyone has adequate notice. There’s no point in a randomized lottery to select a date for genocide because there is no question of fairness to resolve. Scheduling a lottery for fairness purposes makes no sense because all dates are already equally random and fair; the question of when is trivial and mundane, and so is the answer – genocide this Friday is every bit as good as genocide next Wednesday. We can be quite certain that Haman didn’t consult a lottery for fair scheduling.

Far more sinister, Haman cast a lottery to seek divine sanction for his genocidal purge. As Rashi notes, his question wasn’t which moment to start; but which moment was most auspicious for him to succeed. The Purim holiday is named for Haman’s lottery, his lottery of cleromancy and divination, his attempt to predict a divinely sanctioned moment for his plot, and arguably, his attempt to abdicate any choice or responsibility in the matter.

The entire story revolves around the comical reversal of Haman’s attempt at divination to reduce his uncertainty; God’s actual Will guides all outcomes and confounds Haman at every turn. The monstrous and powerful Haman is quickly diminished from the dizzying heights of palace society, helplessly humiliated into a weak and wretched joke on the way down to an ignominious death, to be publicly derided and laughed at for all time by the children of history.

The Purim story contains a powerful and timeless moral; not just that God is concealed in the story but revealed in the outcomes, and that God alone has the power of outcomes entirely. Humans don’t control much at all, so the glory of outcomes is God’s alone; the small, improbable outcomes that stack to shape the history and reality we know are one of God’s most decisive and lauded capabilities – קונה הכל. We can only hope to recognize God’s Hand retroactively in hindsight at best, and never prospectively, as Haman attempted.

God operates invisibly in the background, orchestrating everything with the power of outcomes; Haman didn’t stand a chance, and we know from history that the bad guys never have a chance either – אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ, וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם.

We live in a world of possibilities; a probabilistic world, not a magical one. Probability distributions accurately describe our universe and predict the expected outcomes of all possible values; it is the language God speaks to us every day. We can predict how likely something is to happen, but we can only make that prediction in the abstract because God alone has the power of outcomes – הכל בידי שמים.

But we can only say that in the abstract. The Jewish People may have survived the Holocaust, but a lot of individuals didn’t. When it’s your feet in the story, and you stand face to face with mortal danger, that’s scary, and you have to respond; you have to actually do something. When Haman’s plan went public, they correctly recognize it as an imminent catastrophe! No one in the story thought that they just need to strengthen their faith, that they just needed to trust God to do His thing and sort it all out, and that everything was going to be okay.

When Mordechai encourages Esther to go to the king and make her case to save her people, Esther declines at first because she is afraid – and she should be! She is afraid because she correctly understands that going to the king uninvited is a gross breach of palace protocol and puts her life in serious danger.

Mordechai can’t tell her that she’s wrong, or even that she’s going to be fine. He can’t say that because he can’t possibly know that – or he would say so! Esther is correct about the risk and uncertainty of this proposed course of action, and all Mordechai can say is that someone has to step up, and it might as well be her, but if she won’t, someone else will; which is to say that she can choose to do her part, but must leave the rest to God’s power of outcomes.

Even once convinced to accept her fate and role, Esther asks Mordechai to have the Jewish People fast and pray for her success. She wasn’t sure it was going to work, and she didn’t think she would make it through; she was terrified, and Mordechai couldn’t correct or reassure her.

Everything is going to be fine, but nobody knows if you’re going to be, and that’s scary; we should take comfort in the fact our heroes also experienced fear. As one writer put it, the only time you can be brave is when you’re afraid. This understanding unlocks the entire story of Purim and perhaps sheds light on some foundational tenets of Judaism, including what faith and trust actually look like in a practical and real sense – אמונה / בטחון.

We are probably overly familiar with the story, too numb for Esther’s last words to Mordechai to chill our blood the way they deserve – “and if I die, I die.”

Whereas Haman abdicates choice and responsibility to his magical lottery, Esther bravely and deliberately chooses to advocate for her people and courageously resolves to stand before the king, not because she knows she’s going to succeed, but because it is the right thing to do. Where Haman is a coward who consults a lottery out of fear of failure, Esther puts her best foot forward and takes a chance; the outcome of her last stand no longer matters to her because she has accepted that God alone has the power of outcomes. If she dies, she dies, and salvation will indeed have to come from someplace else. Her willingness to give her life to this cause is a moral victory that places her in our pantheon as a heroine worthy of the highest honors.

God alone can see all ends, God alone can determine ultimate destiny and fate; all we have to decide is what to do with the time and opportunities we are given.  Esther is only responsible for her choice to make her stand, she is not responsible for the outcome, which is in God’s hands alone; not removing the significance of her choice, but redeeming it. Mordechai and Esther’s determination to do what they could while counting God’s power of outcomes is a complete and total inversion of Haman’s attempt to control or force the outcome; their immortal hope stands before us forever – ותקוותם לכל דור ודור.

The Purim story is filled with chance and coincidental events and encounters, like Mordechai foiling an assassination attempt, leading to outcomes of such significance that it is plain to readers that they were orchestrated by God. God’s Hand is not directly perceptible to Mordechai and Esther, nor to us; but we can see it in lucky events, where God intervenes without compromising the freedom of His creations.

We can get so drunk that there’s no difference between Haman and Mordechai, and from the perspective of history, that’s perfectly true. God alone has the power of outcomes, and Haman can’t hurt us otherwise. We can get blackout drunk and be totally vulnerable; we’re safe in God’s hands.

Appearances are deceptive, and what you see is not always what you get – our inputs do not always lead to the outcomes we expect or predict, for better and for worse; maybe that’s why we dress up in silly costumes and disguises, hiding behind masks.

Chance and probability are the undercurrents of the entire story; they’re what the holiday is named for. Purim is the holiday that can never die, and even the somber day of Yom Kippur is but a reflection of Purim. Perhaps everything is like Purim in a sense – it looks random, but it’s not.

While there is doubt that is a function of concealment – הסתר – the notion of uncertainty itself is a fundamental feature of existence and reality, and it has to be that way. We live within the constraints of a dimension called time – we can only ever exist now, with no access to the past or future. We can recall the past, and we can forecast and prepare for the future, but that’s the best we can do; because uncertainty itself is an iron law of reality and all existence, that won’t change even in the utopian age of Mashiach.  

Haman is descended of Amalek; who not only grapple with doubt and uncertainty but are numerically equivalent, which is to say inextricably linked – עמלק / ספק. But instead of their mistake of reaching into the future in an attempt to dispel uncertainty, we can transform their doubt. The doubt doesn’t transform into something else, but like Esther who learned to act within uncertainty, we can find joy amidst the uncertainties of life as well; satisfaction is the same exact word as uncertainty if we only look at it differently – ספק / סיפוק.

We believe in God, and God runs the show. But even though Haman can’t hurt us, it sure seems like he can; when it looks like people are in danger, we have no choice but to act accordingly. Although you don’t control the outcome; you must act as if you can do something, like what you do matters, because that’s the only thing within your power to do.

If that sounds like our life is theatrics, maybe that’s kind of how it is! Our Sages suggest that the Jews were never even in serious danger; God put on a show for them like they’d put on a show in participating in the feast at the story’s outset – לא עשו אלא לפנים אף הקב”ה לא עשה עמהן אלא לפנים.

In the reality we inhabit, playing along with the theatre is all we can do. If you have a test tomorrow, you’d better study and make sure you know the material well. Sure, God runs the world, but the probability distributions conclusively demonstrate that people who know the material usually pass; people who don’t study typically fail. You can pass or fail, and the test might never ultimately matter in the fullness of your life as it unfolds. But you won’t ever know that sitting in the room, staring at the paper, scratching your head struggling for an answer.

There’s only one way to find out.