Thursday, March 8, 2012

Lessons from Purim

By Susan Esther Barnes

This month is Adar, the Hebrew month in which we are supposed to be happy. Last night was Purim eve. On Purim we give edible gifts, read the story of Queen Esther, dress up in silly costumes, drink alcohol, and have a good time.

This year, I bought a “mad scientist” costume. I wore a nametag that said in big, bold letters, “BEST INVENTOR EVER,” with an asterisk. At the bottom of the nametag, in very small letters, it read, “*Except for God.” It is, after all, a religious holiday!

With me I carried the “Ultimate Machine,” a device invented by Claude Shannon based on an idea by Marvin Minsky. It is now available online in kit form from The Frivolous Engineering Company. My fabulous husband bought one and assembled it for me.

The machine is simple. It is a plastic box with a toggle on/off switch. When you push the switch to the “on” position, the box opens, a plastic finger extends and pushes the switch to the “off” position, and the box closes. That’s it.

So I went to the dinner and services at the synagogue, and the party afterward, dressed as an inventor, introducing the Ultimate Machine as my latest invention. I asked people if they would like to try my invention, telling them, “You turn it on, it opens up, tells you everything that is inherently wrong with you, and then it turns itself off.”

At first, I was concerned that people would refuse to turn the box on, thinking it would say something mean, or something that might embarrass them. So if enough people wouldn’t do it, I had in mind a back-up plan, consisting of a different story about what the box did. I didn’t need it. The first lesson I learned this Purim is that people are more willing than I expected to take a chance concerning a risky subject.

The second thing I learned was that children were much less reluctant to try it than adults. Often, adults would say something like, “That box will be talking for a long time!” or “I don’t think I want to hear what it’s going to say,” but kids just went ahead and flipped the switch. I don’t know whether it’s that kids are more curious, or that, the older we become, the more we doubt ourselves. Or maybe it’s something else.

So the person would turn it on, and of course it would immediately turn itself off without saying anything, and I would exclaim, “The soul that God has given you is pure!” (which is a line from the Saturday morning liturgy) – “There is nothing wrong with you!”

The third and most important thing I learned was from the reactions of people afterward. I was amazed at the number of people who sincerely said things like, “Thanks, I needed to hear that.” Many people’s faces lit up, some hugged me, others became teary-eyed. I was continuously surprised by how many people acted as if I had just done them a huge favor.

There is an important lesson to be learned in how badly we need to hear that we’re okay. Truly, we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, and there is nothing inherently wrong with any of us as human beings. Clearly, we need to remind ourselves, and each other, of this more often.

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