Purim and Nature

May 8, 2009

5 min read


Understanding the Hebrew word "teva" sheds light on the story of Purim.

Teva is the Hebrew word for nature. An innocent sounding word, borrowed by the world's largest generic drug maker, its deep meaning alludes to Judaism's attitude toward the modern world.

There are those who saw mankind's advances in understanding nature as a challenge to the concept of a world controlled by God. Science came to explain phenomenon that people had once attributed to God, making the Divine an outdated explanation as to why things occur in the world.

Judaism sees no conflict between the two. In fact, from the Torah's perspective, the more one understands teva, nature, the more one can understand God. The word teva alludes to this very idea: it means an imprint. The Hebrew word 'matbea,' meaning coin, which is derived from the same root as teva, illustrates this idea. A matbea is so called because it is the end result of a cast mold, a definitive form whose impression is stamped onto a metal disc.

Nature is nothing more than God's imprint on the world, and the seemingly natural means through which He exercises providence.

In Jewish consciousness, all of science and nature is nothing more than God's imprint on the world. The more we can understand our universe, and even ourselves, the closer we can approach Divine wisdom and the richer life it provides. The world, however, is a place which hides God's hand behind nature, and it is possible for one to deny His presence. That self-imposed hiding is a gift, for it makes free will possible. If God's presence were so obvious that nobody could deny it, the reward one deserved for connecting to Him would be diminished since there would be no alternative. In reality, nature is nothing more than God's imprint on the world, and the seemingly natural means through which He exercises providence.

Transcending Nature

With this background, we can also note the limits of teva. Although the cloak of nature hides God's hand in the world, there have been individuals throughout Jewish history who saw through the veil and realized the truth with clarity so precise that the laws of nature for them became irrelevant. Nature had no meaning since it failed to obscure the involvement of God which, for such individuals, was patent. As a result, they were not bound by those rules, and could transcend "the matrix." Simply put, they could perform miracles. For example, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa once came home and found his daughter distraught for she had lit the Shabbat candles with vinegar instead of oil and knew they would soon burn out. Rabbi Chanina proclaimed that the one who makes oil burn should make vinegar burn, and it did. To him it was all the same, and the mechanics of natural combustion were as miraculous as the splitting of a sea.

Teva, therefore, is nothing more than a partition behind which God's hand lies; a barrier that becomes less relevant when one sees through it.

Purim and the Lord of the Ring

One biblical story underscores the centrality of teva, nature, and God's use of it to steer history. The story of Purim is replete with strange "natural" coincidences. First, king Achashverosh killed his queen, sentencing her to death in his drunken stupor. This would eventually set the stage for a new queen, Esther, who unbeknownst to the king, was a Jew and would save her people from extermination. In another "natural" occurrence, Mordechai, the leader of the Jews just happened to overhear two courtiers planning to assassinate the king, since he coincidentally understood the foreign language they spoke. He transmitted this information to the king who recorded it, and the king just happened to "naturally" come across it in his book of chronicles when the plan to kill the Jews was coming to fruition. It was the honor afforded to Mordechai for saving the king's life that foreshadowed and even began Haman's demise. Later, when Esther made a party to which she invited the king and Haman, the instigator of the plot to kill the Jews, the king would storm out in fury, only to return when Haman was pleading for his life in a way that the king just happened to interpret as Haman's inappropriate interest in the Queen, thereby sealing Haman's fate. Coincidence?

The story of Purim is one of hidden miracles, of Divine interference in teva without breaking one rule of teva. It should come as no surprise that the symbol of the keys to teva, the physical representation of which side in the Purim story was winning, is none other than the tabaat, a signet ring, another word related etymologically to teva. A signet ring is called a tabaat because of the tibua, impression, that it makes on another surface. The royal signet begins on Achashveirosh's finger. When Haman convinces him to wipe out the Jewish people, the ring passes to Haman's hand (Esther 3:10). The decree to kill the Jews was signed with that same signet ring (Esther 3:12), indicating the shift in teva, nature, toward elimination of the Jews. Finally, after Haman's demise, the king takes the ring from the hand of Haman and places it on Mordechai's (Esther 8:2). The edict permitting the Jews to seek vengeance against their enemies is signed with same tabaat, ring (Esther 8:10). The keys to teva pass back and forth, ultimately landing in the story of Purim on the hand of the nation that will survive.

To the discriminating eye, teva is nothing more than God's fingerprint. When a situation appears as bleak as the threat in the Purim story, instead of wasting our time trying to manipulate the natural variables to our advantage, we can turn to the Master of nature, and reach for the ultimate solution.

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