The Theatre of the Absurd

There are events in life that defy our meaning making capacity. Modern philosophers refer to such events as “absurd”. Sometimes they are collective in the greatest sense, like world wars. Other times they are more particular, such as when individuals and communities experience a tragedy. These two kinds can and often do overlap. It is not long, however, before the meaning making impulse stirs and people do begin to look for a larger, coherent picture within which they can make some sense of what they’ve experienced. There is some value to this and under the right circumstances it can be healing. In other circumstances, that is not so. In those cases, the absurdity is so profound that to insist on the knowledge of a “true meaning” flies in the face of the event itself. In those cases, what are we to do?

One response comes from the Talmud’s discussion of the holiday of Purim, which commemorates the story of Esther and is unique in its emphasis on joy. In this discussion (Megillah 12b) the great sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai asks his students about the story of Esther and the near destruction of the Jewish community in the ancient Persian empire, “for what were the Jewish people guilty, that they faced near destruction? Tell me!” The students offer a possible reason which their teacher refutes. Afterward, they beseech him, “You tell us!” Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai offers his reason, which the students then themselves refute, causing him to admit there was nothing solid that anyone could point to as the cause of the difficult events that transpired, no grandiose meaning to be found (for a review of the story, see here). And so, the moments of communal fear and trembling and eventual redemption remained shrouded in absurdity even hundreds of years later.

Yet, this inability to find a bigger picture meaning puts another aspect of the holiday into sharp relief, namely its four commandments. On Purim we are commanded to hear the story of what happened to our ancestors, we are to eat and drink together, to offer gifts to one another and to reach out to those in need. Even though these observances are done as a celebration of survival and flourishing, they still occur against  the backdrop of the apparent absurdity we described above. Given that fact, they become a response about what to do in the face of absurdity.

Indeed there are times when as particular individuals and communities we experience things that escape any coherence. Sometimes the whole world feels as if it is passing through something that challenges our sense of purpose and place. In these times it may not at all be helpful to try to make meaning of what is happening, however, what we must do, especially in those times is hear one another’s stories, gather around the table in communal nourishment, maintain our sense of generosity toward one another, and we must always strive to lift up those who would be most easily left behind. In this way, certain moments might always feel absurd but the lives we lead will not. 

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