Purim: The Miracle of Jewish Survival
A primer on the history and meaning of Purim.
Excerpt from "Gateway to Judaism" -- The What, How, and Why of Jewish Life (ArtScroll)
The Purim story begins about 900 years after the Exodus from Egypt. The Jews had been living in Israel continually, since they first entered with Joshua. For 410 years, King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem had been the focal point of Jewish spiritual and national life in Israel. The first major tragedy that the Jews of this era experienced was the division of the country into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judea. The northern kingdom was populated by ten of the twelve tribes. It was eventually invaded by the Assyrians under Sennacherib, who exiled the Jews. Sennacherib's policy of forced exile and assimilation directly caused the loss of the ten tribes to the Jewish people.
Less than a hundred years later, the Jews were dealt another terrible blow. This time, the Babylonian Empire under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar invaded Israel, destroyed the Temple1 and exiled almost all the remaining tribes (Judah, Benjamin, the Priests and the Levites) to Babylon (modern day Iraq -- two weeks by camel, seven minutes by Scud).
Jeremiah the prophet had warned the Jewish people that there would be destruction and exile,2 but he also predicted that the Jews would return to Israel and rebuild the Temple and their homeland. Jeremiah even put a date on the return, declaring that the Temple would be rebuilt 70 years after its destruction.3 Nevertheless, there were many who did not believe that they would ever return to Israel, and felt that this exile signified the end of the special relationship between God and the Jewish people.4 The Jews quickly became acclimated to the condition of exile and built a well organized Jewish community in Babylon and neighboring Persia (modern day Iran).
The Persian Empire eventually took over Babylon, and a military leader by the name of Achashverosh5 usurped the throne and became the supreme ruler of the Persian Empire.6 Based on a miscalculation, he believed that the 70-year deadline of Jeremiah's prediction had already passed, and that the Jews must therefore be doomed to remain in exile.7 Since the Jews had outlived all previous empires (Egyptians, Canaanites, Assyrians and Babylonians) except his own, he became convinced that his was the eternal empire. In his mind, the permanent exile of the Jews was an indication of his empire's immortality.8
To celebrate this permanent victory, he threw a colossal party in classic sultanate style, using the holy vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had looted from the Temple in Jerusalem.9 Even more tragic than the party itself, was the fact that the Jews in the capital city, Shushan, also participated in Achashverosh's celebration, over the strong objections of their religious leadership. The Talmud states that it was this sin that caused the subsequent, nearly fatal, threat to the Jewish people.10
Haman's Final Solution
One of the most ancient and persistent enemies of the Jewish people was the nation of Amalek,11 the first enemy to attack the Jews after the Exodus from Egypt. A descendant of the Amalekites, Haman, had ascended to the position of "prime minister" of the Persian Empire.12 This rabid anti-Semite planned an empire-wide pogrom to eliminate the Jewish people. He chose the date for this mass murder by casting lots. In Persian, the word for lot is pur. The plural form is Purim, hence the name of the holiday.
The heroine of the Purim story is Esther, a devout Jewish woman who was forcibly taken as a wife for Achashverosh. She and her cousin Mordechai, one of the religious leaders of that generation, were instrumental in saving the Jewish people from annihilation. After uniting the Jewish nation in repentance and prayer, they set about exposing Haman's plot to the king. Haman and his equally wicked sons were executed when Achashverosh learned that he had planned to kill Queen Esther's nation. The Jews were permitted to defend themselves against their enemies on the appointed day for annihilation, and were totally victorious. Mordechai and Esther recorded the events of Purim in the prophetically inspired Megillat Esther (literally, Scroll of Esther).13 The Megillah is read publicly on the night and day of the Purim festival.
Three years after the events of Purim, King Darius, the son of Esther and Achashverosh, allowed the Jewish people to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple.14 The Temple was rebuilt exactly 70 years after its destruction, as predicted by Jeremiah.
The Hidden Hand
On Purim we celebrate the fact that the hand of God guides us, even at times when we do not see open miracles or obvious Divine intervention.
Although it became part of the Bible, known in English as the Book of Esther, the account never mentions the name of God, though there are veiled allusions. This surprising omission actually reflects a central theme of this holiday. On Purim we celebrate the fact that the hand of God guides us, even at times when we do not see open miracles or obvious Divine intervention. When we read the Megillah, we are not awestruck by dramatic changes in the laws of nature, but by a series of seemingly disconnected events that ultimately resulted in the salvation of the Jewish people. Achashverosh executed his first wife and chose the beautiful Esther as his new queen. These are not miracles, but behavior to be expected from a despotic king. Nor was it a miracle that Mordechai once saved the king from an assassination plot, thereby earning his gratitude. Each event, in and of itself, was not miraculous or even exceptional. When seen in retrospect however, the series of events is seen as engineered from Above for the purpose of evoking repentance from the Jewish people and then saving them from danger.
This theme of allusion may also be the reason behind the custom of wearing costumes on Purim.15 The masks and costumes show that truth always lies beneath the surface, that the physical world conceals the true spiritual reality.
Anyone who is familiar with Jewish history can see the Purim pattern repeated over and over again. The fact that Judaism and the Jewish people have survived for 3,300 years is, in and of itself, not miraculous. More significantly, our survival was not merely physical, but cultural as well. We still use the Hebrew language, we read and study the Torah, we immerse in the same type of mikvah (ritual pool), as that used at Masada 2,000 years ago.16 We put on the same type of tefillin (phylacteries) that were worn in Qumran 1,700 years ago.17
Anti-Semites have attempted to eradicate us physically and culturally, missionaries have tried to convert us, while others have tried to tempt us into assimilation, but we still exist as a distinct group. We do not look different from the surrounding populations and we have not been geographically isolated, yet we stand apart. Twice in history, we were brutally exiled from our Land and we returned twice: once after the Babylonian Exile and once in contemporary times with the establishment of the State of Israel and the incredible ingathering of Jews from all over the world to our Land.
Purim, therefore, is the prototype for Jewish survival during exile.
If all this is not sufficient evidence of Divine Providence, consider the fact that all of these events were predicted by the Torah over 3,000 years ago: the destruction of Israel and the return to Israel, the worldwide exile, anti-Semitism and the eternity of the Torah are described in the following passages.
...I will make the land desolate; and your foes who dwell upon it will be desolate.18
...I will scatter you among the nations, I will unsheath the sword after you; your land will be desolate and your cities will be in ruin.
...You will call forth amazement, reproach and scorn from all the nations to which God leads you.19
...Indeed it is a nation that dwells alone, and is not counted among the nations.20
...And the Lord your God shall return you from your captivity and have compassion upon you; and He shall return and gather you from among all the nations to which the Lord your God has scattered you. ... And the Lord your God shall bring you into the Land that your fathers inherited.21
...And it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles have befallen them, that this song [the Torah] shall testify against them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten in the mouths of their children.22
Purim, therefore, is the prototype for Jewish survival during exile. The Divine Providence hidden in apparently random events has ensured that we have survived, and even thrived, in the face of continual threats to our existence. Purim demonstrates the fulfillment of God's promise to the Jewish people that:
...despite all this, while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not despise them nor will I reject them to obliterate them, to annul My Covenant with them -- for I am the Lord, their God.23
Eat, Drink and Be Merry -- We Almost Died
While the events of Chanukah were principally a threat to our spiritual survival, Purim recalls a threat to the physical existence of the Jewish people. Haman attempted to physically destroy every Jewish man, woman and child. We celebrate our deliverance from this threat with mitzvoth that focus on the physical.24 We give money to the poor and gifts of food to our friends; we eat a festive meal and drink wine.25
Giving gifts to one another also promotes unity among the Jewish people. When first proposing his evil plot to Achashverosh, Haman described the Jewish people as a "scattered and dispersed nation."26 He did not mean only that we were geographically dispersed, but that we were not unified, and thus would be easy prey for our enemies.27 (On a spiritual level, we also understand this to mean that when the Jewish people are disunited, God does not protect them fully. National unity brings about spiritual wholeness and closeness to God.) To counteract this situation, the Sages decreed that we must be concerned with the welfare and friendship of our fellow Jews. We strengthen Jewish unity by giving gifts to the poor, food to our friends, and by celebrating together with festive meals.28
Celebrating Under the Influence
One of the most peculiar laws of Purim is the obligation to drink wine, and even become intoxicated. As the Talmud states, "A person is obligated to become inebriated on Purim, until he does not know the difference between ‘Blessed is Mordechai and cursed is Haman.'"29 Excessive drinking is frowned upon by Jewish law,30 yet here it appears that the law specifically advocates drinking! Clearly, a person may not become so drunk that he loses control of himself and acts or speaks inappropriately;31 nevertheless, he is obligated to become slightly intoxicated.32
Some commentaries explain that the purpose of the drinking is to remind us that the Purim miracles happened as a result of intoxication -- Achashverosh became drunk at the feast, which resulted in the execution of Vashti, his queen. Esther invited Achashverosh and Haman to a drinking party, which resulted in the hanging of Haman and the salvation of the Jewish people.33 Since drinking also has the effect of dulling the intellectual and emphasizing the physical aspects of an individual, it is a fitting way to show that the physical component, rather than the intellectual or spiritual, of the Jewish nation was threatened by its enemies on Purim.34
Consuming alcohol mirrors the events of Purim in another way as well. Drinking lowers one's inhibitions and amplifies emotions. Intoxication causes a person to reveal elements of his inner self that are usually hidden.35 What transpired on Purim revealed the love of God for the Jewish people and His Divine Providence, both of which had been concealed during the time of the Persian Exile.
Yom Kippur -- A Day Like Purim?
One of the greatest of Jewish mystics, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria,36 points out that the Biblical term for the Day of Atonement, Yom Kipurim,37 can also be read as Yom KePurim, meaning "a day like Purim." On the surface this seems illogical -- there are no two days that appear less similar than the solemn fast of Yom Kippur and the boisterous, joyful celebrations of Purim! Moreover, the implication of this statement is that Purim is the greater of the two days. Yom Kippur is compared to Purim, as if Yom Kippur were but a lesser example of the Purim archetype.38
A deeper look at the purpose of these two holidays will help us understand their relationship to each other. There are two ways to become close to God: the path of awe and fear, and the path of love and joy. Both are necessary and both play important roles in Judaism. Generally, the various prohibitions in the Torah reflect the relationship of awe and reticence, while the positive obligations reflect the relationship of love and reaching out to God.39
Yom Kippur, with its prohibitions against eating, drinking and other physical pleasures, represents the path of awe and fear of God.40 An individual stops his life, completely ignores the physical side of his being and focuses only on the spiritual. One can achieve clarity of perception on Yom Kippur by subduing the interference and static of the physical world.
Purim, on the other hand, provides a path to God through love and joy. Purim teaches us that one can achieve an even higher level of connection to God and clarity of perception through the feelings of love than through feelings of fear and awe. Thus, Yom Kippur is like Purim, but not quite Purim, because the love of God is more powerful than the fear of God.41
Excerpt from "Gateway to Judaism" -- The What, How, and Why of Jewish Life (ArtScroll)