Professor Mike

Purim, you would think, would be the last day of the year to video-chat with a philosopher. But Professor Mike is no wet blanket at the party. Especially after a few glasses of aged wine. And last Purim, Professor Mike the Philosopher was desperate to understand the metaphysical meaning of Haman and his lottery.

In Mike's mind—being a philosopher—for every twist and turn through which human thought can squirm, there was some event in the history of the Jewish People. And for a philosopher, there’s no greater joy than nailing each metaphysical peg into its slot.

So he popped up on my screen, in the middle of the mad Purim rush. If it were anyone else, I would have blocked him. But on Purim, Professor Mike is the guy for a video-chat.

“The Chanukah thing,” he says, “I pretty much got down. It’s about rationalism. The Greeks effectively locked G‑d out of the universe with the deadbolt of logic and reason. If everything runs logically, the original creator can take a hike and won’t be missed. Furthermore, He has to stay perfect and ideal, above it all, while the little gods play around with the world. So they found Jews irrational and subversive with their One Big G‑d who is everywhere and actually gives a hoot about everything and everyone every little minute.”

“Sounds good.” I said.

“But what’s with Purim and the Persians?” he asked

Purim is about chaos and the totally random.

“It’s just the opposite,” I answered. “It’s about chaos and the totally random. That's why it's called Purim, which means, literally, Lottery Day. The wild, the crazy and the arbitrary. Take one look around this house and you’ll get what I mean.”

“Tzvi,” Mike’s voice was discernibly excited, even over the lousy Skype connection, “you're on to something big there. The Greeks and the Persians were archenemies in every way.”

“That was Alexander’s downfall, wasn’t it?” I pointed out. “He let the Persians prostrate themselves before him, and his generals were furious. Greeks can kneel, but they can’t tolerate the idea of prostration—putting the head at the same level as the feet. Reason has to stay above all.”

Star Wars

Mike was now hot on the case. “Okay, let's see where we can take this. But we need to fit it into what we know about Persian beliefs. Like Zoroastrianism. I know a little about that. Mainly Lucasian Zoroastrianism.”


“George Lucas. Star Wars. Heavily Zoroastrian.”

“Mike, I thought professors learned philosophy from books!”

“For sources, you need books. But to really understand philosophy, I watch sci-fi fantasy and my kid’s videos. Horton Hears a Who. Toy Story. Wreck-It Ralph…”

For the first time, I felt embarrassed of my ignorance, talking to such an erudite scholar.

Whenever there’s a heretic in the Talmud, it’s most commonly some sort of dual-power thing.

“I haven’t watched much of those,” I admitted. “But I do know that whenever there’s a heretic in the Talmud, it’s most commonly some sort of dual-power thing—the belief that there are two gods, one good and one bad, in constant conflict. And Isaiah has this line about the G‑d who ‘forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates evil.’ That even made it into the liturgy—slightly altered so we won’t have to talk about evil.”

“Right. The Force. There’s a dark side of the force and the light side. Goodness comes from the light side. Evil from the dark side. But there has to always remain a balance in the universe.”

“Mike, that’s Obi Wan Kenobi speaking. Seriously, what does George Lucas know of the ancient Persian mind?”

“Well, in the ancient Persian mind, the good force eventually wins. But until that point, the competition is fierce. It’s the total opposite of the post-Socratic Greek cosmos, where the supreme intellect is totally removed from what is going on down here. For the Persians, the supreme deity was totally involved in all the messiness down here, locked into battle to the finish.”

“So what’s random about that?” I asked.

“Not sure.”

Gotta hand it to Mike. That’s a real philosopher—one who can say he doesn’t (yet) know.

“Besides,” I said, “Haman wasn’t even Persian. He was an Amalekite, one of those nefarious, icon-of-evil tribesmen, descendants of our Uncle Esau, locked in trans-generational nemesis with the Jewish People and their G‑d until the end of time.”

“Oh yes, Amalek! The essence-core of evil embodied. The ultimate of chutzpah and radical badness.”

Pause. Tense pause. Not supposed to happen on video-chat. Except with philosophers. And then:

The Universe Game

“I got it.”

“Tell me.”

“The ideal, consummate, archetypical setting for an Amalekite, the stage upon which his true essence could be manifest, was Persia.”

The ideal setting for an Amalekite, where his true essence could be manifest, was Persia.

“Don’t get it.”

“Look,” says Mike, “Persians, like we said, took this whole struggle of good and evil thing very seriously. But this Amalekite comes along with his mega-chutzpah, laughs the whole thing off and says ‘It’s all a big game.’ That’s what Haman did when he threw the dice. He said, ‘Evil, shmevil—I’m beyond all that. It’s an illusion. Above the game, there’s no good and no evil, no right and no wrong, no time and no change, and nothing really matters. And no reason I can’t win.’”

“Yes,” I chimed in, “it says something like that. It says that Haman wanted to reach to a point beyond the cosmic order where dark and light are all the same. I learned that, but I can’t say I really get it.”

Mike explained: "Think of the games people play—board games, video games or sports, games of skill, games of chance or games that combine both. From the inside, a game is a fierce competition. From the outside, it’s a set of artificial rules. The rules determine what’s good and what’s bad, who wins and who loses. But rules can’t take sides. The game itself has no sympathy for the downtrodden, no pride for the valiant, no boos for the villain, no hurrahs for the hero. If it would, it would no longer be a game, but a ploy."

“So the game is the universe?” I asked.

“Right. The Persian gods were all within the natural world, pawns in the game. Even when the Achaemenian dynasty adopted a singular god of light and goodness, it was a god still within the system, caught up in this struggle with evil. But Haman saw through all that. He had the chutzpah to jump beyond the system.”

Mike was pouring himself some more wine, his hand shaking, visibly excited. But he kept talking.

“Haman knew full well that within the game, he doesn’t have a chance. Sure, the Jews had assimilated and fallen into decadence. But nonetheless, he was of the dark side and they of the side of light. Nothing he could do could win him enough favor to beat them at this game. And even if he did beat them this time, he would still be the villain, and they the hero.”

In his Amalekite chutzpah, Haman saw himself beyond the gods, where nothing really mattered.

“But, in his Amalekite chutzpah, Haman saw himself beyond the gods, above the game. He said, ‘The Jews and I are on a level playing field, because nothing really matters. There’s always a chance I can win, just because that’s where the dice might happen to fall.’”

“And, in his mind,” I pointed out, “that’s just how they fell after all—on his side.”

“On his own,” Mike ranted on, “Haman was nothing but a cold, demoniacal atheist. In ancient Persia, he made himself into the ultimate symbol of nihilism and despair.”

“Okay, fine.” I interjected (Mike could have gone on for hours). “But then we won. So why do we call it Purim? Makes no sense”

“Why not?”

“Mike, we’re celebrating a miracle. We’re not seeing this as some arbitrary fluke of chance. Celebrating a miracle means you recognize that this was a deliberate act of G‑d. That’s the opposite of what Haman believed, that it’s just “stuff happens.” And here we’re calling it Lottery Day! Not Miracle Day. Like, Stuff Happens Day!

“That’s a problem,” admitted Mike, as though pondering a stalemate.

“No problem,” I answered. “Just let me show you this wild and extreme Midrash.”

“Show me.”

The Choice

Midrash Rabba, Chapter Two. Rabbi Avahu said:

From the very beginning of the world, G‑d foresaw the deeds of the righteous and the deeds of the wicked. “And the earth was chaos and empty”—these are the deeds of the wicked. “And G‑d said, ‘Let there be light!’”—these are the deeds of the righteous.

But from this we do not know which He desires—whether the deeds of these or the deeds of those. Once, however, it is written, “And G‑d saw the light that it was good”—now I know that He desires the deeds of the righteous and He does not desire the deeds of the wicked.

“Yes! I get it.”


“Okay, this is how it works—step by step. For the Persians, G‑d is stuck inside the system, like I explained. He doesn’t choose good, He is good.”

I nod. Mike’s on a roll. No interruptions.

“The Greek philosophers had G‑d sort of outside the system, but not really. He’s the ultimate intellect, so the more ideal, perfect and whole anything is, the closer it is to G‑d. So He also doesn’t have real choice. He has to choose the most ideal. If it’s not perfect and unchanging, He can’t have anything to do with it.”

Nod again.

“For Haman, the Amalekite, there is no choice, but rather, like I said, stuff just happens. The ultimate origin of being doesn’t really care. He only pretends to care, within the game. But in truth, in His reality, everything is equally insignificant. Haman and the Jews are all the same up there.”

Bigger nod.

G‑d is not a being inside the system of being—so He has no peg.

“But to the Jews, G‑d is perfectly free. He’s not the universe, or the game, or even The One who must stay beyond all. That’s also a peg to stick Him on. He’s not a being inside the system of being—so He has no peg. He could decide nothing at all and nothing would be. Or He could decide things would be and let it all just run in chaos. Or He could decide that things would be and say that light is good and the good will win in the end and the bad will be vanquished.”

Very big nod. I even got some words in: “The Jewish G‑d says, ‘Darkness and light are both my creations. But I’m free, so I can choose light.’”

“But really,” Mike jumps in, “He’s not affected by that choice. He’s beyond all that. It’s all the same to Him.”

“Wrong,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

I Want That!

At that point, I had to tell Mike the example my teacher, Reb Yoel Kahn, gave, strange as it sounds. Reb Yoel said, “I know this may sound strange, but it’s the closest example I can think of for G‑d deciding what He really wants: A two-year old saying, ‘I want that!’”

And, yes, we thought that was very strange. So Reb Yoel explained:

When an adult decides he wants something, it’s because that thing has some quality that fills some need. So, as much as that need is important to him, and as much as that thing fulfills it, that’s how much he wants it. Does all of him want it? No. The proof? Provide something better for less and see how fast he changes his mind.

But when a two-year old says, “I want that!”—it’s not the that. It’s not even the want. It’s entirely about the only recently discovered I.

And so, there is no cell of that screaming, cute little monster that is not entirely absorbed in this wanting. The proof? Try providing an alternative. Try convincing a two-year old to make a different choice. If it weren’t for the power of distraction, those little guys would tear the world to pieces with their I wants.

The best example of a real choice is from a two-year old child.

So I explained that to Mike. And I explained that G‑d wants good and not evil in the same sort of way. It’s not a rational decision due to the qualities of the desired object, just as it isn’t arbitrary. It’s a decision of the I. And so it is absolute and all-consuming. Once He decides, all of Him is invested in that decision.

“So,” Mike says, “you’re telling me that G‑d is defined by this desire?”

“Absolutely no and no again! He’s not defined by anything. If He were defined, He wouldn’t be G‑d anymore. He would be another thing that is. The fact that He wants this and not that tells us nothing about Him. He wants it because He wants it.”

“Of course.”

“But once He wants it, all of Him wants it, totally and absolutely.”

I paused to down some Purim wine. Then:

“There’s a whole passage in the Tikunei Zohar about this. Here’s one line:”

Pull Out a Zohar

From the preface to Tikunei Zohar:

No thought can grasp you.…You are He that is wise, but not with knowable wisdom. You are He that is understanding, but not with knowable understanding. There is no place where You are known.

“Get that?” I asked. “He is wisdom because He decides to be wisdom—and therefore He is not defined by that wisdom. And yet He is there, all of Him, within that wisdom. And so the wisdom becomes, at its core, unknowable wisdom. And the same with kindness and compassion, and all the characteristics by which we know Him. He is found there within them, all of Him, and yet He is not grasped within any of them.”

“This is getting paradoxical,” says Mike. “You know, I’m a philosopher. I experience deep trauma approaching paradox.”

“How do you get along with two-year olds?”

“Not so well either.”

“But you watch your kids’ videos.”

That sparked it. “Yes!” he exclaimed, “It’s like one of those scenes at the climax of a classic sci-fi thriller. The hero and the villain meet face to face in their final duel. As the light sabre of the hero lies poised to finally vaporize the villain, the villain grins. And he pulls his last strategy, the one that tells us who he truly is. He says, ‘So you destroy me, so what? Does that make you a hero? Eventually, you will die as well, as has every mortal. It’s all a game. The whole universe is a game. You are no hero, I am no villain. There is no meaning. There is no purpose.’”

Good and evil lie at the core of reality. At the place where nothing matters, everything matters.

“And then,” he concluded (almost), “The hero has to come to a deeper realization. He has to resolve that reality does have meaning. That good and evil are real. They lie at the very core of all that is real. And that is how he wins.”

“Just as we won on Purim,” I explained, “when we said we are Jews no matter what. That’s when we really got it. Got that Torah is real.”

I couldn’t stop there:

“So that’s what we’re saying about the chaos thing—the lottery. That’s the name Purim. It’s the essence-point that’s beyond reason, beyond any desire, beyond change. And yet, once a choice is made, even that essence-point is totally involved in every consequence of that choice. It’s as though the wheel of fortune got stretched out into a line with an arrow at the end pointing towards a destiny of good.”

Mike, like most brilliant thinkers, is quite ADD. I hope he was following, because I went on:

“So that all of G‑d is found in every cell of His creation. Nothing is necessary, but all is deliberate. Nothing must be, but all is desired. Desired by all of G‑d, even at the very core, that which is totally beyond.”

Dice With the Universe

Mike was pondering. He sipped a little more wine.

Then his face lit up, and he exclaimed excitedly “So when Haman threw the dice…”

Me: Unbeknownst to him, it actually came out in favor of the Jews.

Mike: So G‑d does play dice with the universe! But the dice are loaded!

Me: No!

Mike: Why no?!

Me: Because they are still dice! It’s random!

Mike: But He chooses how it will fall! You can’t have both at the same time!

We’re in a yelling match at this point, banging our fists on a table stretched to opposite ends of the globe. I can see the wine splattering on the screen of Mike’s iPad.

“Sure you can have both at the same time,” I said. “You could have a statistical average that is totally random, but always ends up being in favor of the good side nonetheless.”

“So is it random or not random?”


“Yes what?”

That’s why we call it Purim. To say that even the essence-beyond-everything is invested in the choice.

“Yes, it is both. And that’s why we call it Purim—lottery day. Chance. Random. Chaos. To say that even the essence-beyond-everything is invested in the choice.”

Pause. Or maybe it was a bad connection.

Meekly: “Tzvi, you have to understand. I’m a philosopher. Paradox is just…well…very hard for me.”

“It’s okay, Mike. You can still be a philosopher, even with paradox. Paradox is a window on the infinite. The only window.”

“I guess that’s why life is so paradoxical.”

“I guess.”

“Unlike Aristotle.”



Based on a Purim Maamar spoken by the Rebbe, Purim, 1953, the day of Stalin’s fatal stroke. See also Likutei Sichot, volume 4, page 1341.