According to a tradition that may be close to 2,000 years old, celebrants of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which occurs on March 20-21 this year, are supposed to get drunk: "On Purim, one has an obligation to become intoxicated to the point that he does not know the difference between 'Blessed is Mordecai and cursed is Haman.'"
That's weird. But, curiously, this strange instruction fits alongside a deeper teaching that's also almost two millennia old, the apostle Paul's writing in chapter 8 of Romans: "For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us . . . we know that for those who love God all things work together for good."
The basis for Purim is the history book of Esther, a book without mention of God that could be seen as sanctioning immorality. After all, Esther's adoptive dad, Mordecai, assents to her entering the royal harem of a king who has kicked out his queen after she refuses to dance, perhaps naked, before hundreds of drunken nobles.
The book is full of irony. Esther becomes one of the young women whom the king will try out, one per night. Could Mordecai have preserved Esther from the king's lusts by hiding her? We know only that he obeys the king's command in this instance, but then disobeys by refusing to bow down to the king's murder-minded favorite, Haman.
The mixture of passivity and guts makes this story read like history, which reflects human nature. Not until Haman moves to wipe out all the Jews of Persia does Mordecai move to active protest. He opposes the king's genocidal edict by putting on sackcloth. He walks through the city wailing with a loud and bitter cry.
When Esther gets the news she also wants to be passive, in the realization that an active appeal to the king will likely lead to her own death. Here's the crux, and the paragraph that makes Esther canonical: Mordecai tells Esther, "If you keep silent at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father's family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this."
Esther agrees, saying, "I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish." Once the reluctant hero and heroine decide to act, God brings allies to their side, but they act without knowledge of what will come. Mordecai is clever and Esther is brave, but their Oscars would be only for best supporting actor and actress: God is the real Actor.
That faith in God's sovereignty lies behind the Talmudic thinking that Purim celebrants should drink until befogged. An intoxicated night symbolizes the fog that most of us are in most of the time. We always see through a glass darkly, on matters ranging from politics to personal relationships. Look at marriage, for instance: "Until death do us part" requires a tremendous act of faith, because a 20-something spouse will be a different person 50 years later. Yet God is good.
We go through life saying, "Blessed be Mordecai and cursed be Haman," because we know from the book of Esther that Mordecai is a good guy and Haman is true to his Amalekite ancestry. But in our day-to-day experience we meet those who seem like Mordecai yet are actually Hamans, and vice versa.
How, then, shall we live? With humility and charity. We make the best decisions we can with the most information we can ferret out-all the while realizing that we are fallen in discernment as well as in will.
For example, we fight for particular presidential candidates, and should do so if we are to honor those who fought and sometimes died to maintain our republic. Yet, we should recognize that it's not the end of the world if our favorite loses: In God's providence the person we opposed might turn out in unexpected ways to preserve the world.
In the end, a humble attitude toward God means that we realize our total dependence on Him to save us from not only our sins but our own limited wisdom.