VeNahafoch Hu: The Force of Creative Destruction

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Purim is a celebration of reversals. The Book of Esther, which is traditionally read twice on the holiday, states in Chapter 9 verse 1:

Now in the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, on the thirteenth day of the same, when the king’s commandment and his decree drew near to be put in execution, in the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to have rule over them; whereas it was turned to the contrary, that the Jews had rule over them that hated them.

This notion, of things being turned on their heads, called “venahafoch hu†in Hebrew, is at the core of this lively, raucous little holiday. The very purpose of our celebrating is intertwined with this overturning “from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a holiday†(Esther 9:22). As Rabbi Irving Greenberg  puts it in his essay “Confronting Jewish Destiny: Purim,†in his book The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays:

Part of the dizzying paradox of Purim is the extraordinary and capricious reversals it reflects. Vashti is deposed as queen for showing modesty. Esther wins favor for the queenship because of her modesty…Mordecai, in one day, is raised from gallows candidate to prime minister. The very name of the holiday – Purim (meaning lottery) – suggests the absurdity and vulnerability of historical events when a turn of the wheel, a night’s insomnia, a moment of jealousy on the part of a drunken king, spells the difference between degradation and exaltation, between genocide and survival.

On Purim, we wear costumes, get drunk, and let go of the daily inhibitions – the cloak of order – that characterizes our lives, in order to acknowledge that our lives can change on a dime, and that a situation that looks devastating and grim can in fact become uplifting and celebratory.

But what is lurking beneath this notion of “venahafoch hu?†And what does it have to teach us, as a Jewish community, about our relationship to innovation and change, and those who turn, and sometimes overturn, the strictures of our community?

Posted on February 24, 2010

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