Q&A : Purim – February 2011 – “Jewish Life” magazine
People often tend to think of Purim as a children’s festival…we dress up, give presents, eat – is that all it’s about?
Purim is actually a very profound and uplifting part of our calendar. Purim and Chanukah are the two festivals that were added on to our calendar after the giving of the Torah. All the other festivals were given by G-d as recorded in the Chumash except Purim and Chanukah. And of the two, Purim has a higher level because it was instituted by the prophets whereas Chanukah was instituted by the Rabbis of the Sanhedrin. So halachically, Purim has an even higher level of duty, with some very important themes.
What are they?
Obviously, the first is remembering the Divine miracle of the Jews’ salvation from Haman’s planned extermination (as described in the Megillah). The Jews were saved through Esther and Mordechai’s intervention, and that was a miracle from Hashem. But particularly when looking at both Chanukah and Purim together, we need to recognise that our sages and prophets did not institute a festival for just any miracle that occurred – because there were many miracles that were happening at the time, and indeed throughout Jewish history. They specifically created festivals of miracles that had an eternal message.
So what is the eternal message and relevance of Purim?
The relevance of Purim is not something that is buried in the past. It is something we live with everyday. And part of that message is the miracle of the physical survival of the Jewish people. Whereas Chanukah celebrates the spiritual survival of the Jewish people. The Greek empire didn’t want to destroy us physically – they didn’t even burn down the temple, they just defiled it – but rather to destroy Judaism itself. On the other hand, Purim was about the attempted annihilation of the Jews physically. And that is why both Purim and Chanukah have relevance today, because throughout our history the Jews have always faced these two major challenges.
What are they, in short?
The one is from within – the spiritual assimilation and disintegration of Judaism. And the other is from without – the challenge of anti-Semitism and the real physical dangers facing the future of the Jewish people.
So Purim and Chanukah in effect embody our two biggest challenges as Jews today…
Yes, and that’s why these two festivals were set aside – to celebrate and internalise how we as the Jewish people continue to survive and thrive – both from a spiritual, moral point of view, and from a physical point of view.
How can we bring this eternal message to a modern context – how can we ensure our survival on those two fronts today?
The motto of my website (www.ChiefRabbi.co.za) is a statement made by Rav Mordechai Pinchas Tietz, one of the great Rabbis in America in the 20th century – ‘The Torah speaks in the language of tomorrow’. Meaning that Judaism has eternal relevance. For example, the relevance of Purim today is chilling. This is an amazing thing. Purim took place in Persia, and the modern country that exists there today is Iran. Haman made it very clear that he wanted to wipe out every Jew, man woman, and child, and the Iranian regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is very open about wanting to wipe Israel off the map. So here is a modern day situation that is almost retelling the Purim story. And we are currently reliving the challenge of Chanukah too – global assimilation. In many parts of the world, Jews are losing Judaism. Thank G-d in South Africa, it is to a lesser extent – but we do have our own increasing problems of assimilation here too.
How do we juxtapose the chilling relevance of the day with the happiness of the day? Celebrating that we came out of the danger, yet still experiencing it on such a real level today?
What we need to do is work out is what the key lessons to getting out of it were then, and then apply them today.
What was the key?
One of the major messages is that we are in Hashem’s hands, and with Hashem’s help, we will overcome anything. Jewish history has defied all the normal laws of history – at times with severe wounds and repercussions, but we always, with G-d’s intervention, emerge from any crisis. And the other thing central to Purim story of course is that Hashem expects us to play our role, and this is the balance between faith in Hashem and action.
In the Megillah, we read that Mordechai and Esther didn’t take Haman’s evil machinations lying down. They devised a plan for Esther to go to the king, and the people also fasted and prayed. In the end, their prayers showed that their faith was clear and strong. They believed, rightly, that the ultimate result was in G-d’s hands, even though G-d wanted them to make their best efforts to deal with the situation. It was not the political and military plans that saved the day. It was Hashem. These things were the tools that G-d used to save them. So it was a dual approach.
How do they connect?
Acknowledging the world is not random, but under Hashem’s control. And that is the fundamental ideological difference between the Jewish way of thinking and the pagan way of thinking. Is the world, is life, random, or is it by design? And part of the joy we have on Purim is realising that the Jewish way is to see everything by design and that Hashem is in control. So even though Hashem is not mentioned in the Megillah, He is orchestrating the events. This is a powerful example of the hidden miracles that take place all the time, that Hashem is guiding us all the time behind the scenes – not only as a people but as individuals as well.
So in this story Hashem’s ‘hidden-ness’ was revealed by the miraculous victory – but in everyday life we don’t always get our victory…how do we reveal Hashem then?
It all depends on how you define victory. Purim is about faith in Hashem. Even when we can’t see it, we must believe that Hashem is working a plan that is much larger than we are. When Mordechai is trying to convince Esther to intervene with Achashverosh he says that maybe it was for this very moment that she became queen.
Is that the life lesson?
Yes. Any situation you find yourself is there because Hashem wants you to be there, and we have to live up to our responsibility in each situation and have the merit to be part of G-d’s plan. From Purim we learn that nothing happens by accident. Any situation in life that we find ourselves in is so because of the will of Hashem and presents us with a unique opportunity to fulfill His mission for us in that situation. These situations arise on a daily and even hourly basis. We have to keep asking ourselves, “What does G-d want from me in this situation based on the teaching of His Torah?” Are we going to play our role in that, or not? Will we achieve our Divine destiny or not?