The Book of Esther, the account at the heart of Purim, is saturated with what seem to be chance, but fortuitous, happenings.
Esther becomes queen, placing her in a pivotal position; Haman turns up at the wrong place at precisely the wrong time (or, better, the right place at the right time), when the king is mulling what should be done to reward Mordechai for saving his life; later, Ahashverosh walks in on Haman and Esther at precisely the wrong (right) moment, mistaking his minister’s begging the queen’s mercy to a brazen attack on her; the gallows Haman builds for Mordechai end up hosting their builder and his sons. The day earmarked for the killing of Jews becomes the day of their enemies’ downfall.
All that the Purim villain Haman so carefully plans eventually comes to backfire on him in an almost comical way – a theme the Book of Esther characterizes with the words v’nahafoch hu, “and it was turned upside down.”
The hallmark of Amalek, the would-be nemesis of the Jewish People and the nation that spawned Haman, is the embrace of chance as the essence of the universe – of the meaninglessness, in other words, of existence, including human beings. And so, ironically but fittingly, what seem to be “random” occurrences are what bring about Haman’s defeat – a fact first manifest in the “casting of lots” from which “Purim” takes its name.
The Jewish People stand for Creation’s ultimate meaning; they are the Amalek-idea’s antithesis. Chance, Megillat Esther teaches us, is an illusion; no matter how bleak or confounding things seem, God is in charge, there is purpose to life. Amalek may fight with iron, but he is defeated by irony.
Modern times, intriguingly, provide examples of would-be destroyers of Jews who met their fates in serendipitous, Purim-like ways.
The rabid Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher, for instance, was captured entirely by accident (and by a Jewish American army major Henry Plitt), mistakenly thinking that he had been recognized. After his conviction and sentencing to death at Nuremberg, he seemed, eerily, to sense something larger in his downfall. The International News Service reported that he blurted out, just before the gallows’ trap opened, “Purim Feast 1946!” An exceedingly odd exclamation on an October 16 morning – Hoshana Rabbah, as it happened, that year.
Another happy irony lies in the fate of Streicher’s estate. As reported in Stars and Stripes in late 1945, his considerable possessions (including a cache of pornography) were converted to cash and used to create an agricultural training school for Jews intending to settle in Palestine. Just as Haman’s riches, as recorded in the Book of Esther, were bestowed upon his nemesis Mordechai.
Fast-forward and pan eastward, to 1953 and the Soviet Union.
In January of that year, Joseph Stalin, the USSR’s cold dictator, publicly “disclosed” a plot, part of a vast conspiracy, led by Jews working for the United States, to kill him and destroy the Soviet Union. Hundreds, predominantly Jews, were arrested and tortured.
The conspiracy, which became known as the “Doctors’ Plot,” was a fabrication. Stalin, according to those who knew him well (including Nikita Khrushchev, who later became the USSR’s premier), hated Jews.
Much later, it became known that, weeks after the Doctors’ Plot was “revealed,” Stalin ordered the construction of four giant prison camps in Kazakhstan, Siberia and the Arctic north. Some historians, noting a dearth of any direct evidence, are unconvinced that the camps had anything to do with Jews.
Others, though, citing Nikolai Nikolayevich Polyakov, who was the secretary of a special “Deportation Commission,” contend that they were intended for Jews. Polyakov said that deportations were to begin in the middle of February 1953, but the compilation of lists of Jews proved so time-consuming that it hadn’t been completed by Stalin’s death in March of that year. Stalin’s plan was to execute Doctor’s Plot defendants in Red Square and then assume the role of “protector” of Soviet Jews by sending them to camps away from an enraged Russian populace.
None of that happened, however, as Stalin collapsed after an all-night dinner with four members of his Politburo at Blizhnaya, a north Moscow dacha, and, after languishing for several days, met his Maker.
During that feast, though, according to Khrushchev, who was present, the dictator had become thoroughly drunk. He then went to his Kuntsevo dacha, west of Moscow, with the four Politburo members, and retired to his bedroom.
When he did not arise as usual at dawn, his guards grew concerned, but they were instructed to not bother him. That night, though, Peter Lozgachev, the Deputy Commandant of Kuntsevo, entered the room and found Stalin on the floor, unable to communicate. The dictator succumbed on March 5.
His drunken feast, though, had ended in the early hours of March 1.
Which, in 1953, corresponded to the 14th day of Adar, which we know as Purim.
“And these days of Purim will never pass from among the Jews nor shall their memory depart from their descendants” (Esther, 9:28).
Rabbi Avi Shafran is a columnist for the American edition of Hamodia, blogs at www.rabbiavishafran.com and serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiAviShafran
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