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Purim: A Holiday in Disguise

  • Rav Ezra Bick



            Purim, as a religious holiday, is both the easiest, and, in some respects, the hardest holiday to understand. On the one hand, the basic nature of the holiday seems clear - you are supposed to have a good time, to rejoice in the simplest sense of the word, by having a feast, with good food and good liquor. Of course, that is part of the problem - just what is the religious significance of this? There will be those who will tell me that I am merely disclosing my own problem in asking this question - who says there has to be some deep metaphysical significance to Purim? Why cannot the Jews simply have a good time without their collective conscience nagging them? I more or less agree with that point - so I will set a limit on my philosophizing - whatever the meaning of Purim will turn out to be, it may not contradict the simple fact that you are supposed to enjoy yourself.

            Let us start by listing the halakhic obligations of Purim:

1. To hear the reading of the Megilla - the Book of Esther (twice, at night and in the morning).

2. To have a feast.

3. To send "mishloach manot" - two foods, to at least one friend.

4. To give some support to at least two poor people.

            Obviously, the story of the Book of Esther is the basis for the holiday. The story itself is rather simple - The Persian Empire includes within its bounds all Jewish communities in the world. A court intrigue lead by the King's chief minister Haman leads to an edict consigning all Jews to death. In a Byzantine plot arranged by the Queen, who is secretly Jewish (and who became queen as a result of a previous "palace coup" against the previous queen, Vashti), the edict is overturned, the Jews are allowed to defend themselves, and, on the appointed day, manage to slaughter all their enemies. Haman himself had been hanged earlier and Mordechai, Esther's uncle and the chief engineer of the Jewish comeback, has been appointed in his place. As the Megilla states, "There was light and joy and happiness and honor for the Jews."

            It has long been noted that the name of God is not mentioned in this book of the Bible. The plot, in fact, reeks of bizarre coincidences - it just happens to be that Mordechai has been recorded as the one who saved the King's life by disclosing the plot (another one!) of two of his courtiers to poison him, Mordechai's daughter and ward is chosen from all the women of the Persian empire (127 different states) to be the queen, the night before the fateful meeting with Queen Esther (over a bottle of wine), the King cannot sleep and so meets Haman, who overreaches in his ambition and arouses the King's suspicion, and everything ends happily. In fact, Esther's name (which was not her real name, which was Hadasa) means in Hebrew "hidden," and the Sages immediately connected it with a verse in the Torah - "And I shall surely hide My face ("aster astir panai") on that day." The halakhic celebration of this day also seems to be devoid of any particular "religious" character - a good meal, brotherly love and sharing, a couple of good drinks, and a general good time. It seems that this is a holiday in disguise (and so, the custom of wearing disguises on Purim seems to be right on the mark!).

            It is common to compare Purim to Chanuka, specifically because they are the two non-Biblical holidays, added after the Torah was given. In this respect, they are nearly opposites - Chanuka, as we saw a few weeks ago when we discussed it, celebrates the miraculous, the extraordinary, the eternal light which shines forth from the holy Temple in Jerusalem. Purim seems to celebrate the mundane, the darkness, the hiding of God's name.


            There is another distinction generally perceived between Chanuka and Purim. Both celebrate victories over non-Jewish enemies, but the nature of the threat is radically different. The Syrian Greeks of the Chanuka story did not attempt to physically endanger the Jewish people. The confrontation was spiritual and cultural. Greek culture, determinism, and naturalistic spiritualism (polytheism) were poised to overwhelm the Jewish supra-naturalistic spiritual identity, to absorb it in the Greek cultural empire. On Purim, on the other hand, the threat was physical, existential. The Jews had been consigned simply to destruction - "to be killed, obliterated, and destroyed." This universal threat to the entire Jewish people was unparalleled throughout Jewish history, with only the circumstances of the Nazi holocaust approaching it. On Chanuka, the Jews would remain, but would not be Jews. On Purim, they would simply not be.

            So, one might say that Purim celebrates physical salvation in a very physical manner; our "this-world" was saved, so we celebrate in this world - good food and a general good time. I think there is a lot of truth in this. Purim is meant perhaps to be a simple holiday, and its character is not necessarily disclosed through deep philosophizing. This though reminds me of a story told of Rav Naftali of Ropshitz.

            It seems that as a youth, one of the disciples of the great Chozeh of Lublin, young Naftali had a tendency to practical jokes and clever tricks. This rather stood out in the somber atmosphere of the Chozeh's circle. One time, Rav Naftali pulled off one of his tricks - I do not know what it was, but it was undoubtedly very clever. The Chozeh decided that enough was enough, and he called Naftali in for a sobering talk. He said:

It is written, 'You shall be simple, wholehearted, with HaShem your God' (Tamim tehiye im HaShem Elokecha); and not 'You shall be clever with HaShem your God.'

Rav Naftali, who was even more clever than the Chozeh imagined, answered: "That is true, but I think one has to be very clever indeed to be simple with HaShem!"

            I do believe that Purim is meant to be a simple religious holiday. But I fear that we may have to be very clever indeed to achieve the simplicity of Purim.


             The Talmud relates that when God came to give the Torah to the Jews, they did not exactly leap at the opportunity. God then picked up the mountain, held it over their heads, and said: If you accept the Torah, why then well and fine; but if not, here will be your burial.

            The Talmudic sage Abaye commented on this story: From here we may derive exculpation from the Torah (for if they were forced to accept the Torah, it was not an expression of free will, and no one can be punished for later disobeying). The Talmud continues and adds - But they subsequently accepted it at the time of Purim, as is written, "The Jews fulfilled and accepted upon themselves and upon their descendants" (Esther 9,27) - they fulfilled that which they had already accepted.

            What is the connection between the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the story of Purim. The Maharal (R. Loew of Prague) explains this Talmudic midrash as follows: Of course the Jews accepted the Torah willingly at Sinai. After all, it is explicitly written that they answered Moshe, We will do and we will listen. The meaning of the hovering mountain is not physical. Rather, the giving of the Torah, as related in parashat Yitro, including the fire and the thunder, and THE MOUNTAIN SMOKING, and the very palpable presence of God inherent in His voice, was such that no one could possibly have said no. When one directly perceives the presence of God, who can resist? This acceptance is compulsory precisely because God needs no force when He discloses the truth, when He reveals Himself as He did at Sinai. Afterwards, when the smoke clears together with the morning mists, when the sun rises as it had for the thousands of mornings before over the bleak and lifeless desert landscape, when the mountain returns to being craggy rock and the heavens recede to their infinite heights, when God is once more He whom Isaiah described as "Truly You are a hidden God" - does the acceptance of yesterday truly obligate? Can the Jew who yesterday saw the world fade before the glory of the living God even be described as the same person as he who today must chose between good and evil? Abaye answers in the negative - he cannot be held to be truly responsible for not fulfilling that which he never truly accepted of his own free, uncompelled will.

            Purim represents the exact opposite of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. There are no trumpet-calls here, no thunder or lightening. The Jews are saved, but the hand of God - or rather, the revealed, overwhelming hand of God, is absent. In fact, the name of God is not mentioned. Esther - the hidden one, who hides her identity in the King's court, is the reflection of the hidden God. And yet, the Jews perceive the presence of God beneath the Byzantine workings of the palace intrigues. After many years, after all that had been wrought in the period of the first Temple had faded (Purim is the only Jewish holiday commemorating events which take place in exile, aside from Passover of course), when neither the kingdom nor the house of God are in apparent existence, nevertheless, the people perceive the hands of God and reaffirm their acceptance of His Torah, his law and their destiny. According to the Sages, this represents the actually legally binding acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people, because, paradoxically, it is done without the apparent presence of God.


            So, how is Purim celebrated? Purim appears not to be a religious holiday at all, from the halakhic point of view. That is quite correct. The halakha brings to man the religious values of God, by directing his life to those experiences which will reflect the presence of God. For Purim, that sort of halakha is helpless. The more that the halakha would impose, the less there would be for man to discover and uncover. Purim is therefore the opposite of the usual celebration. It is not the supra-natural imposition on man, designed to show him a potential above himself to which he can climb. It is the "natural" celebration - the day that we let out the true level of recognition that is inside, not in response to the thunder and lightening, but because we are able to perceive, in the darkness and the exile, the light that is within the cloud. It celebrates not light (Chanuka), but that we have eyes.

            Purim is not a dignified holiday. It is not blessed with ritual. It is a day when you find the power to rejoice in God's goodness, in His charge to you, even though He is not demanding it. It is also a day of Jewish solidarity and equality. Because it celebrates the Jew rather than God - the Jew discovering God rather than God calling to the Jew - it demands unity and solidarity. Charity is of course a mitzva every day. The mitzva to give alms on Purim is not a fulfillment merely of charity, but of the nature of Purim. Shall I rejoice alone on this day? You must search out the needy - and also share with your friends, although they are not needy. Exchanging gifts, of food, with each other, so that the celebration will be truly ours, from within.

            And, have a good time. Not telling us how to have a good time is a big risk for the halakha. There are, after all, so many ways to misuse human rejoicing. There is a word in Biblical Hebrew - tzchok - which means basically "fun," and which is used in the Bible to variously describe murder, sexual impropriety and idolatry. In Megillat Esther, the "good time" of the Jews is described as "light, joy, happiness and honor." Actually, it does not say that the Jews rejoiced. The verse is phrased in the passive voice - "And there was light, joy, happiness, and honor for the Jews." Indeed, the happiness is something that is meant to happen on this day, to spring up from within, without guidance from above. It is a day to swept away by the currents that have been hidden, as Esther was hidden, as God is hidden. On the other hand, the Sages have a pithy saying about instinct - "In three ways is a man known - kiso, kaaso, koso (his pocket, his anger, his cup)." If it is natural joy welling up from within, without the guiding hand of eternal reason, it is a mighty indicator of the true nature of the man within.

            The holy Ari (R. Yitzchak Luria), the great 16th century Kabbalist, pointed out the similarity between Purim and Yom Kippur. Yom Kippurim is yom ki-purim (a day like Purim). On the surface, there can be nothing more dissimilar. The soberest, holiest of days, on the one hand; on the other, a day of levity. But underneath the difference, there is a great deal in common, although from opposite angles. Both are days of truth, unembellished truth. Both are days when man will stand alone, unadorned, before God. They start from opposite ends of the spectrum, but hopefully meet at the point where both are acceptance of the Torah by the individual who has climbed to a point where he can find God. Honest, simple joy, without dissembling, is man at his purest. Neither day is meant to be every day - life consists of changing, of forcing oneself to climb above oneself. But once - or twice - a year, we have to stop and just be ourselves, and nonetheless place ourselves under God, thank Him for his salvation, and reaccept that which we have already begun to keep, not because He is insisting, but because we see, simply see, the truth, the light under the dark.

            Let me leave you with an astonishing thought (I think). The Sages state, that if all the holidays will cease, there will remain only Purim. I doubt that that is meant to be a historical prediction - and I leave to you what it really means. Why is Purim the last of all celebrations?

Purim sameach - and L'chaim!