Purim: On the Brink

May 8, 2009

10 min read


How far would you go to save your child?


"It is a mitzvah to drink on Purim until one cannot distinguish between 'cursed is Haman' and 'blessed is Mordechai.' "(Talmud, Megillah 7b)


There is something odd about this Purim mitzvah. It's the only time we are bidden to drink to the point of lacking coherence and clarity. This is certainly not a spiritual, conscious activity with which the Jewish holidays are replete.

There also must be something ly important about Purim since according to the Jewish calendar, which starts in Nissan, Purim is the last holiday in the year (Passover being the first). From a Kabbalistic perspective, each holiday is a milestone in the creation of the nation and in the relationship between the Jewish people and God. Passover represents the birth of the nation; Shavuot, when we accepted the Torah, is our "Bar Mitzvah"; Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the period of commitment and "engagement" between the Jewish people and God; Sukkot, with its overhead canopy, represents the wedding; Simchat Torah is that time of "yichud" -- a closeness and exclusive time which only a married couple share.

Then come the difficult, dark times, hurdles in our life as a couple that need to be overcome, represented by the winter holiday of Chanukah, when light is brought back into the relationship and we weather the strain and difficulties. And then finally, the last stop: Purim. This should be culmination, an end-goal, at least a crucial step in the God/Jewish people dynamic that is achieved before our final destination -- the Messianic era.

What is it? How is it manifested by the events that led to the creation of this holiday?


"18,500 people went to the party and ate and drank and degenerated. Stood the Satan and said: 'God, how long will You stand by this nation who remove their hearts and loyalty from you?!' And God said to Satan: 'Bring me a scroll and I will write and sign destruction upon it.'" (Esther Rabba 7:13)


At the time in which the Purim story takes place, the Jewish people were in exile in Persia. As the story begins, a large portion of the Jewish people participated in and enjoyed a decadent party hosted by King Achashverosh, at which use was made of the holy vessels from the Jews' destroyed Temple in Jerusalem. This act of reveling in the pleasure of eating and drinking with the victorious ruler who had brought about their national downfall represented such disloyalty and severance of their connection with God, that God Himself "signed off" the Jewish people. It is as if the divorce papers arrived in the mail and God had only to sign them and send them back.

The immense gravity of the danger was generated by the fact that God himself decided He was no longer a backer in this deal.

The danger in which the Jewish nation found themselves as events developed (Haman's suggestion and Achashverosh's consent and decree to kill all Jewish men, women and children on the 13th of Adar) was a direct result of that Godly sign-off. Differently from every other period in Jewish history in which "they (the nations) rise against us to destroy us" (Hagaddah) but "God who sits in heaven and laughs" (Psalms) prevents their evil intentions from coming to fruition, here the immense gravity of the danger was generated by the fact that God himself decided He was no longer a backer in this deal. The partnership was off.

As soon as this happens, the regular status quo falls apart. No longer can there be a "natural" set of rules of cause and effect, whereby when the Jewish people sin and distance themselves from God, they are faced with challenge and difficulty; they then repent and God redeems them, restoring the relationship. Now, however, the danger is looming. We are catapulted into a situation of such disastrous proportions that our actual survival as a nation is at stake.

Never before was the possibility of our destruction so real and so imminent. And from these dire circumstances arose a correspondingly incomprehensible and miraculous salvation. A complete "turnabout" in every sense of the word, in which God's mercy, compassion and love overturned the evil forces of despair, hopelessness and destruction. As a parent acts when his child is in real danger, money becomes no object and all considerations pale in comparison to the importance of keeping her alive.


In the Purim story, Mordechai, upon hearing about Haman's decree of destruction (and according to the Midrash, upon understanding from Elijah the prophet that this was an unshakeable decree written and signed by God Himself), asks Esther to go immediately to the king and ask for mercy for her nation. Esther wants to wait for the right moment when Achashverosh will call her, and then figure out a plan to work things out. Mordechai tells her that if she misses this opportunity, "salvation will come to the Jews from another place and you and your family will be lost" (The Book of Esther,4:14).

This is not a time to strategize and deliberate. It's too late for that. We can only hope to arouse mercy from God that will overturn even this most hopeless and desperate state. If you risk your life by going to the king now, unannounced, there is a chance we can tap into that Godly compassion.

Esther seems to get the idea when she adds:


"Go, gather the Jews and do not eat and do not drink for three days, day and night, and I and my maidservants will also fast and with that I will come to the king unlawfully, and if I am lost, I am lost" (Ibid, 4:16).


Awaken mercy, the love of a parent towards an ill child, the love of a husband for a dying wife. Nothing else will work.

She doesn't talk about repentance, nor about prayer, nor even about doing good deeds (in fact, according to the Midrash, one of the nights was the night of Passover, and the "Seder" and all its entailing obligations were set aside for the sake of the fast). All she has in mind is: Awaken mercy, the love of a parent towards an ill child, the love of a husband for a dying wife. That's the only avenue to take. Nothing else will work. This is why we should fast for three days – God must see we are dying, that our very survival is on the line, and then He will save us.


Every year each holiday comes with a special spiritual energy inherent in time as it moves cyclically forward. On Passover, for instance, comes a sense of freedom from bondage, an ability to be released from limitations and imprisonment. On Rosh Hashana, a renewal, as the world again is created at this time every year.

On Purim, we become once more the undeserved recipients of an almost mindless outpouring of love and protection, salvation from a situation at first considered completely hopeless and irredeemable. We are children who have strayed so far into such grave danger that are only hope is to cry out to a parent who then sweeps us up just in the nick of time, and carries us safely back home.

That's why we get drunk on Purim. All year we operate under an illusion of control, of "cause and effect." We grow, change and improve ourselves and we imagine that, as a result, God responds in kind and gives us spiritual and material blessing. On this day, God shows us the epitome of our dependence on Him. It's as if He says: Just get out of the way -- don't even make a conscious decision to come back to Me. I'm doing all the work, irrespective of your actions. As far as I'm concerned, you could drink yourself silly. In fact, do that, so that it will be obvious to you that you are not in control; it's not your actions that cause Me to love you. My love for you is completely unconditional. You are my nation and I'm taking care of you no matter what – just because you are Mine.



"And its memory will never cease from its descendants" (ibid, 9:28).


"The holiday of Purim will never be abolished. Even at the end of days when all commemorations of our travails will not apply, the Book of Esther will be like the Five Books of Moses and last for all eternity" (Rambam, Laws of Megillah, 2:18).


The everlasting quality of Purim results from this unshakable fact: God's love for us is infinite, eternal. As such, it can not be tied down to natural rules that govern finite relationships. This, then, can in fact be the last stop in our development as a nation in our wondrous union with the Almighty: a recognition that when all is said and done, we should trust God and surrender control. He orchestrates and brings about results. He creates a reality that we, in our finite dimension, can't even comprehend. He expects us to try and put our best efforts forward, but even as we strive and imagine that we're accomplishing, ultimately it is God Who is entirely independent and is fulfilling our needs and taking care of us, regardless and sometimes even despite our intentions and actions.


On Purim, when this overwhelming compassion shines upon us today as it did then, it behooves us to grab the opportunity and tap into this wondrous power. Especially in these days when the Jewish people are surrounded by enemies and our very survival is being questioned.

We are asked to behave towards our fellow man with this same love and compassion. The mitzvot of "mishloach manot" – sending foods to our friends -- and the "gifts to the poor" are meant to increase love and mercy among us and remind us to emulate God's unconditional giving.

On this day no matter what we ask for, we are guaranteed that we will not be turned away empty handed.

Just as we are instructed to "give without thought to anyone who stretches out his hand" on Purim (ibid, 2:16), so too God is giving out "freebies" to anyone who asks, without any thought or deliberation. The power of our prayers on this day is immense. No matter what we ask for, we are guaranteed that we will not be turned away empty handed.

Just a week ago the Jewish people were struck with a terrible tragedy when eight beautiful, young Torah students were killed in their yeshiva in Jerusalem. Surely God's infinite mercy has been awakened, and this Purim may we witness, through no merit of our own, a complete turnabout, as we are pulled back from the brink of despair and destruction and experience once again, "for the Jews there was light and happiness, joy and honor."

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