It’s a Purim World Out There

The Polymath

By Jay Michaelson

Published March 04, 2009, issue of March 13, 2009.
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Purim has always been a weightier holiday than it seems — precisely because it is the lightest. Unbearably light, to paraphrase Kundera: Purim’s message is that there is no anchor, that all is random, that carnival is real and there is nothing you can do about it. Or, to paraphrase the late and beloved Rabbi Alan Lew, everything is fake and you are completely unprepared.

This “Purim World,” in which everything solid seems suddenly to dissolve into chaos, is more evident now than ever before — especially for me. As many of my readers know, I recently returned from five months of meditation retreat, a bit like Rip Van Winkle going to sleep and awakening to a completely different world: a Purim World. When I left, the world seemed fairly stable; when I returned, I found financial meltdown, grave uncertainty in Israel and — closer to home — an uncertain time for Jewish not-for-profits like mine. (In addition to writing for the Forward, I am executive director of Nehirim, a national organization that creates spiritual community for GLBT Jews, partners and allies.) Fortunately for me, I had never heard of Bernard Madoff when I sat down to retreat last September. But since I’ve been back, I’ve used the term “Madoff-free” a dozen times.

This chaos is, indeed, the lesson of Purim (“lots,” as in a lottery) whose fairy tale-like story is one of random twists and turns, inversions and near misses. As is well known, God’s name is never mentioned in the Megillah, and indeed, the rock-solid, judgmental and stabilizing God of the Hebrew Bible IS absent from the plot of the story. On Purim, God is like Esther: nistar, hidden. But chaos is not without meaning — and I’ve learned a great deal since coming back.

First, I’ve learned that what’s often called the “real world” is not real, but a Purim World. As I was preparing for my retreat, friends asked me whether I was “retreating” in the cowardly sense of the word: running away from the real world to navel-gaze at the foot of a Buddha statue. I wondered that myself. Yet, now I see that my months of solitude were far more “real” than the abstract complexities of bank bailouts, mortgage crises, stimulus plans, and the incessant and contradictory yammering of the pundits.

Now, I was not raised to be a Buddhist monk. I went to Yale Law School, and have founded one successful software company and two successful not-for-profit organizations. So I am quite familiar with the ways of the financial and business worlds. But now that I’ve returned from retreat, these Purim Worlds look like houses of cards, none as real as the timeless truths I pondered on the cushion. Of course, real people are really hurting in this financial crisis. But the mass media’s and micro-medias’ conversations about it seem a chance-ridden caricature of rationality, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The “real world,” that is, the Purim World, is air.

A second doubt I had entering retreat was personal: How, I occasionally wondered, did I end up this way? More than once, I questioned why I was doing this, and whether I was squandering my talent on spirituality. My friends from YLS are now professors and politicians, and I’ve worked in those arenas myself. Should I have remained a law professor, or lived some other more conventional, respectable, and lucrative lifestyle?. Shouldn’t I be a bit more, well, credible?

Now I can say, no. Today, the phony credibility of the so-called “experts” is more transparent than ever before. Indeed, our whole system of determining who’s knowledgeable and who’s not, who’s “serious” and who isn’t, has no connection to real wisdom and insight. Our culture values the wrong attributes for the wrong reasons.

It’s like the entire world has become one of those ubiquitous HSBC ads. On one side, the Man in Suit Is Credible, and the Man in Robe Is a Flake. But maybe that’s backward. After all, a phalanx of incredibly wealthy and smooth-talking bankers, insurance agents, corporate executives and lawyers has completely screwed up the system it’s meant to be preserving. This isn’t a case of a few bad apples; this is an entire system in which the fundamental premises seem flawed, unexamined and, now, in danger of collapse, whereas those monks and rabbis in robes who warn us that all is impermanent, and that the true light lies within, suddenly seem on the right side of history.

To be clear, I’m not sounding any call for any alternate economic system, plan or package. My point is that the people, ways of thinking and ways of valuing what our system says are the most trustworthy — aren’t. Many people tried and continue to try their best, of course, but none, no matter how self-important or well remunerated, could have prevented this catastrophe. The suit does not make the man, after all.

A third and final Purim lesson that I have learned in these past few weeks is how much of our time is spent thinking about money. As soon as I left retreat, money — which had been utterly meaningless for several months — defined everything: where I sat on an airplane, how thick the mattress was at my hotel, how airport personnel treated me. Everywhere I looked, money defined the terms of engagement. And it was everywhere in the media: on the news, of course, but also in commercials, films and entertainment-industry news. Yet while most of us would agree that financial security is necessary for life in the world, surely few would maintain that money is “what really matters in life,” right? Driven by greed and desire, our Purim World swirls out of control, like a loud, noisy carnival ride, spinning wildly around an empty center — sometimes up, and other times down.

Ironically, it is precisely in such a “down” time that many of us reaffirm non-Purim values such as love, peace of mind, compassion and wisdom. In times of prosperity, we might simply nod and go about our business. But in times of economic chaos, when people’s lives are being thrown into the Purim maelstrom, ethical and spiritual truths become more important — not merely as refuges from the storm, but as signposts of truth. Now we can appreciate teachings such as “Eizehu ashir, hasameach b’chelko,” or “Who is rich? The one who is happy with his share.”

But let’s not be foul-weather ethicists only, spiritual when times are bad and superficial when they are good. In fact, I want to suggest that the teaching from Ethics of the Fathers holds true not only for monetary riches, but for a rich life, as well. The trick is this: We don’t want what we think we want. We think that we need that pleasure/car/success/cave/woman/man/ food/pride/land/religion/value/achievement/bank balance/spiritual attainment/house/dress/ prey/status/superiority/amusement in order to be happy. We think this because we are bred to think it, because the animals that don’t think it don’t eat, reproduce or run away from predators.

The result of this misconception is a Purim World. Here, the yetzer hara (evil, or selfish inclination) governs: my desires against yours, not to mention my fears of you, and yours of me. The “reality” of a Purim World is, both in the Megillah and today, dictated by desire, power and money, and so reality is overturned as soon as the winds of change shift.

But we are wrong. We don’t need any state of mind, religious salvation, monetary gain, power or even love to be happy; we need only relinquish the sense of need itself. Desire actually seeks its own annihilation, because in consummation, desire itself is erased, and the bliss of release outweighs any conventional pleasure. This much I have seen to be true.

So I wonder: Is the news section more “real” than that of arts and culture? Is an ocean’s wildly churning surface more “real” than that ocean’s depths? Or is there, amid all the sound and fury of the Purim carnival, an implicit voice — or perhaps it is a silence — that tells a different narrative, forever occluded by the megaphones of the powerful, yet ultimately one of liberation and release?


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