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“Life Can Only Be Understood Backwards” (Purim)

The selective attention test.

We’re a generation that loves to multitask, but we’re probably not as good at it as we think. That’s the conclusion we’re forced to come to upon participating in the now-famous “selective attention test” which went viral a few years ago after being uploaded to YouTube. Before the video begins, viewers are instructed to “count how many times the players wearing white pass the basketball.” It seems like a simple enough task, except we soon discover that there are two groups of players – some wearing white, others black – and that each group is throwing around a different basketball. Suffice it to say, things get very confusing, very quickly. (Spoiler alert: You probably want to watch the video yourself before reading on, because we’re about to give away the results of the experiment).

At the end of the clip, the researchers reveal that the white team passed the basketball fifteen times. Most people get that right. What almost everybody fails to notice, however, is that halfway through the experiment, a man in a gorilla costume emerges from offstage and begins to dance in between the players. In fact, that’s the whole point of the test – not to prove whether we can count basketball passes, but to demonstrate a psychological principle known as inattentional blindness: the failure to notice an unexpected stimulus that is in one’s field of vision when other attention-demanding tasks are being performed. Simply stated, there’s a limit to how much information we can take in at once. We concentrate on one thing at the expense of all others. So when we’re spending all of our energy trying to count basketball passes, we totally miss the dancing gorilla.

Last year in Israel I discovered this lesson first-hand. Each Sunday night some friends and I would study the weekly Torah portion with Simon Wolf, a member of the community of Ramat Beit Shemesh. All of us had spent over a decade reviewing the texts of the weekly Torah portion during our time in Jewish day school, which meant that we were quite familiar with them. It also meant that we had been primed, as it were, to approach them from a very particular vantage point. Whatever our educators emphasized in class, we saw. Whatever they didn’t emphasize, we missed. In effect, we had built a frame around each narrative, and were only able to perceive that which was inside the frame. To everything else, we were “inattentionally blind.”

And so, about twelve months ago, my friends and I were sitting around Simon’s kitchen table preparing for the holiday of Purim. We were expecting Simon to speak about the wisdom of Mordecai, the courage of Esther, or the wickedness of Haman. Perhaps he would highlight a subplot or draw our attention to a motif which we’d never before picked up on. Instead, however, Simon asked a single, simple question: “You guys have read the book of Esther over a dozen times by now. Who would like to tell me how many years the story spans?” We were shocked, not only because Simon had chosen to focus on something as elementary as this, but also because none of us knew the correct answer. We’d been so engrossed by the book’s high-stakes conflicts and its dramatic characters that the relatively trivial matter of chronology slipped right past us. Since the book moves at a rather quick pace, we guessed that it took place over anywhere between a few months in a year.

But we were wrong.

As the book of Esther opens, king Ahasueres is in the third year of his reign (Esther 1:3). That’s when Vashti is deposed as queen. But Esther becomes queen only in the seventh year of Ahasueres’ reign (2:16), and it’s only in that year that Mordecai thwarts the conspiracy against the king’s life (2:21). By the time Haman plots to destroy all the Jews, we’re already in the twelfth year of king Ahasueres (3:7). Yet even Haman’s decree isn’t slated to take effect until almost full year later (3:13). In the meantime, Esther plans her first feast with the king (5:7), Mordecai’s loyalty to Ahasueres is remembered (6:2) and rewarded (6:10), Esther hosts her second feast (7:1) and Haman is hanged (7:10). It’s still not the end of the story though, because the Jews have to wait about nine more months (cf. 8:9) before they’re finally allowed to defend themselves militarily. All in all, then, over a decade has passed by the time this book draws to a close.

A popular musical rendition of Ben Bag Bag’s teaching. Its lyrics, הפוך בה והפוך בה, play nicely off of the words ונהפוך הוא — “and everything turned upside down” — which conclude the book of Esther and form the lyrics of one of the most popular Purim songs.

Only when we realize this do we begin to appreciate the meaning of the Purim story. Encountered superficially, the book of Esther reads like a tightly-bound series of cause-and-effect events which collude perfectly to deliver the Jews from despair to salvation. But the book only reads this way because its authors, looking back at a decade of history, saw it that way. Their genius lay in their ability to reflect upon a series of disparate incidents, strewn over a relatively enormous expanse of time, and perceive their interconnectedness, their overarching rhyme and reason. These authors did not let the intensity of the present moment cause them to lose sight of – to grow “inattentionally blind” to – the larger picture. It was their patience and their perseverance which gave them the perspective to detect the hand of God at play behind the scenes.

From the weekly Torah portions, to the Haftarot, to the Megillot, there are many texts which we read communally throughout the Jewish year. Yet as R. Menachem Copperman, my teacher at Lev HaTorah, pointed out, the only one of these texts which we read twice in its entirety is the book of Esther: once on the eve of Purim and once again during the day. Why? R. Copperman suggested that we do this because the book of Esther, like a good mystery film, only begins to make sense the second time around. To be fully appreciated, it must be rewound and rewatched. Put otherwise, the story of Purim is one big hermeneutic circle: we can’t comprehend the individual parts without reference to the whole, nor can we comprehend the whole without reference to the individual parts.

That, in a word, is the message of the book of Esther. It is about learning to cure inattentional blindness – learning not to lose sight of the forest because we’re focusing too intently upon the individual trees – by developing hindsight and foresight wide enough to take in the entire landscape of life. Kierkegaard hit it on the head when he remarked that “life can be understood only backwards.” Even more apropos, perhaps, was the teaching of Ben Bag Bag: “Turn it over, and turn it over again, for you will find in it everything” (Avot 5:26). In context, Ben Bag Bag was referring to the need to return constantly to the Torah – to review it from multiple angles and consider it from different viewpoints in order to truly appreciate its meaning. His lesson, as the story of Esther so aptly demonstrates, is just as true of life itself.

Shabbat shalom and Purim sameach! 

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