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Living Judaism

Shall This Too Pass?
What Purim teaches about seizing the moment.
-- Rabbi Michael Bernstein 

A king once asked his most trusted advisor to craft an artifact which would at the same time evoke solace in times of misfortune and humility in the face of great prosperity. After some time the advisor produced a ring on which was etched in Hebrew the following phrase: Gam zeh ya’avor; this too shall pass.

This story, usually associated with King Solomon, has taken its place among the legends of the Jews. Its message, that neither suffering nor exultation is a permanent fixture in life, fits the basic tenor of Jewish traditions, especially the topsy-turvy holiday of Purim, celebrated this month.

In fact, however, the origin of this tale is not clear and the provenance of the phrase itself is shrouded in mystery.

Until the 19th century, there is no Jewish source for this well-known Jewish tale, but it appears in Persian Sufi writings during the Middle Ages. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is the chief Rabbi of Baghdad who cites this story as a well known parable. The most prominent person to use this phrase in our own country, however, was even more renowned.

In his Wisconsin Address, President Abraham Lincoln attributes the parable to "an Eastern King" and comments: "How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!"

Yet can this combined wisdom of Solomon, the Sufi Way, and the Great Emancipator speak to us in a time when we face global crises? Where the idea of "this too shall pass" is not one of hope for the future, but fear that the very survival of humanity is imperiled?

How can we turn to an adage that seems to say that the state of the world will change, irrespective of what actions we take?

Perhaps we can think about this question in light of that other tale involving a Persian King, a ring, and advisors whose counsels lead toward different extremes.

The Purim story tells of how a catastrophic plan by the King’s favorite minister, Haman, is thwarted by what seems like a combination of smart politics and good fortune. The heroine, Esther, urged on by her uncle, Mordechai, wins Persia's most important beauty contest to become the King's favorite and the Queen of the realm. Meanwhile, Mordechai’s refusal to bow down to Haman spurs the power-hungry villain to plot the murder of Mordechai and all his fellow Jews. He receives the King’s blessings and the irrevocable authority of his signet ring.

However, by chance the King is reminded that Mordechai had once saved his life from an attempted coup and decides that this loyal advisor ought to be feted with a public tribute. While Esther had hidden her Jewish identity at first, now her strategic and dramatic revelation of her kinship with the embattled Jews of Persia completes the reversal of fortune. The threatened Mordechai is celebrated, the favorite Haman becomes condemned, the doomed Jews become the victors and the ones who prepared the gallows are themselves hanged.

When facing the prodigious challenges of a world scarred by wars, overrun by poverty and threatened by drastic climate change, it is easy to be either paralyzed by fear or escape to a false sense of detachment. The tales of the Persian Kings teach us otherwise.

Gam zeh ya'avor. "This too shall pass" prevents a person from feeling too much despair, or having too much stock in his own accomplishments. However, the Purim story teaches that in the midst of an unpredictable world where anything is possible, each one of us still must have the courage to do her part. While neither the travails nor the triumphs of this world are permanent, we cannot just be passive and wait for things to change.

When we celebrate Purim we recite a story about transience in order to encounter an eternal truth.

In fact, the Rabbis claim that Purim will be the one festival to survive even after the onset of Messianic times. This teaching is based on that same word ya’avor, as the Megillah states "these days of Purim shall never pass [ya’avru] from the midst of the Jews, and their remembrance shall not cease from their descendants."

May these festive days inspire us to recognize the part that we can play, and not let this moment pass.

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