Thursday, March 4, 2021

Etymological Adventures: On Lots and Happenstance

2 Purim baskets
Yoninah, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

"Happy Purim!" Jews and non-Jew celebrants, like myself, greeted each other last week. We might as well have been saying "happy lots," "happy fate," or "lucky fate." A religious holiday run through with the language of chance, Purim, the Festival of Lots, made me consider how we think about luck in our lives. Is chance unfeeling math at work? Or a manifestation of the divine? What is the source of a 'happy lot'? Wherever it comes from, chance, as a concept, is ubiquitous.

In biblical times, people engaged with chance and probability by 'casting lots.' The practice may have involved drawing stones—like straws—to decide who would do something or throwing down stones and interpreting how they fell to reach a conclusion. Casting lots is similar to gambling, hence the related word, lottery. In the Purim story, the evil Haman cast lots, called purim in Hebrew, to decide on which day to kill all the Jews in Shushan. On that very date, as it turned out in the story, the Jews prevailed, making Purim a happy holiday.  

Happy comes from the English 'hap,' which means "chance, fortune, luck." The verb happen has the same root.

Purim, the Hebrew word for lots, can also mean 'portions.' It so happens that 'sending portions,' or 'mishloach manot,' is a Purim tradition; people give each other baskets of hamantaschen and other delectables. 'Manot' (singular: mana) means portions. Unlike purim, though, manot does not also means lots.

Casting lots is a matter of probability and statistics, random chance. How distant that feels from the idea, which I think of as being at the heart of religion, that things happen for a reason. 

I do think of chance as controlling what happens, to an extent. Yet things do not happen quite as statistics predict. Random number generators produce strings of repeats; flipped coins repeatedly land on their heads. In the long run, the textbooks say, reality operates closer to statistical prediction, but no run is infinite. In what happens—and whom it happens to—there's always an element of luck. 

Statistics tell you what the distribution is: that there is a bell curve and that average values occur more often than extremes. But what controls an individual's position on the curve? Who is the distributor? In this human drama, who is in charge of casting?

Some people believe the answer is God. In the Bible, people cast lots not as a way of letting chance decide but in order to determine God's will. (That said, God is not mentioned in the Purim story; it's said that God is masked within it.) 

For me, the idea that statistics could be God-given raises the question of whether God is actually up there flipping coins. In Judaism, there's much talk of God 'dealing fairly' with people. One interpretation of that phrase is that God is giving every individual attention and consideration. But another take on it is that God is the dealer in the sky, distributing fates with a certain cold objectivity. The latter doesn’t strike me as a metaphor of fairness. Or is it the ultimate fairness, as long as God shuffles the cards?

'Bonne chance' means good luck in French. The phrase appeals to me because it expresses the idea that luck and chance are the same thing and not unqualifiedly good. Yes, lucky refers to good luck and Fortune smiles—but sometimes she frowns. 'By chance' in French is 'par hasard.' Chance, with a hint of peril.

When I write, I sometimes feel as if I'm throwing words at the page in hopes that they will land in meaningful arrangements. I think about words and their origins and hope to make sense of them. Often I can, but not always. I originally thought mana, the singular word for portion in the phrase mishloach manot, might also refer to the food that God provided the Israelites during their desert wanderings. God apportioned food, made allotments. Yet although a Purim basket might feel like a kind of manna, "a usually sudden or unexpected source of pleasure, gratification, or gain" or "food miraculously supplied," as Merriam-Webster defines it, the manna of the desert and the mana of Purim and mishloach manot are not etymologically related, as far as I can tell. The Hebrew words are different genders. Nice try, I think to myself. Better luck next time.

What is luckier, though, really—for words with common origins to sound alike and have similar meanings? Or for etymological strangers to connect? The former is about as "lucky" as learning that you resemble your great-grandmother. The latter, though—for words without a common root to not only sound alike but also relate meaningfully to each other—that's really something. I wouldn't go so far as to call it "divinely supplied spiritual nourishment." Or maybe I would. 

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