Next week is Purim, but this past week the fragility of life was on our television screens. The tragic loss of Malaysia Air flight 370 was a not so subtle reminder that life’s music, as the poet Rilke sardonically noted, doesn’t play forever. It only seems that way.
In its aftermath amidst the reports of search and investigation was an article by someone who claims to have been saved from the crash “by God and Shabbat”. The backstory is that the travel agent wouldn’t book him a return flight on Shabbat and thus avoids stepping onto the ill-fated flight. Suggesting to us that not only did God ordain the crash, but that observing Shabbat can save a person from such tragedies.
I would like to suggest that the holiday of Purim is a signature message that reveals the truth about life, and the world we live in. Jewish tradition tells us that the first of all Jewish holidays is the holiday of Pesach. On Pesach we not only celebrate the freedom of the Jews from Egyptian slavery but also our redemption. This redemption is found in our covenant with God and the giving of the Torah.
By this reckoning if Pesach is the first of the holidays, then Purim is the very last of them. Purim falls 30 days before the first night of Pesach placing it at the very end of a long, yearly journey through our history and our selves.
So in a few short weeks we will sit down with family and friends and read how literally nothing stopped God from fulfilling the promise to take the Israelites out of Egypt. Plagues will rain down, waters will part that convey the sheer scope of this determination – so it is no surprise that the Exodus from Egypt was seen by the ancient rabbis as the miracle par excellence.
But Purim is so very different.
Could you imagine sitting down at the seder night and not mentioning God’s name? And yet on Purim that is precisely what happens because throughout the entire Book of Esther there isn’t a single mention of G-d’s name. While a miracle is sensed, it is at best sublime. The story of Purim while far fetched, has a touch of reality to it. In other words, it might be hard to believe but it’s not impossible to the point where you’d need a miracle to explain it. Therein lies the difference between the two opposites of the Jewish holiday cycle – Pesach and Purim.
You could say that we begin the cycle of Jewish holidays with the fantasy of how we would like the world to be – with nothing stopping God from intervening to do the just and right. And the cycle ends with how the world actually is – where it is not God that saves, but us through determination, courage, hope and faith.
The rabbis of Jewish tradition were aware of this painful paradox and in one story tell us the sage Rabbi Meir was traveling in Asia Minor (Turkey) over the holiday of Purim. He stops at a Jewish community to hear the reading of the Megillah but discovers they don’t have a scroll to read from. The law forbids the writing of a scroll by memory – Meir knew that. So he writes a scroll by memory, and then makes a copy from that scroll which he uses to read from.
Brilliant? Yes. Audacious too. But it also reveals a lesson for us – that the world is not home to the ‘see it and believe it’ miracle. Sickness, suffering, the tragedies of airline crashes make this painfully clear to us. We realize the miracles we experience do not come by way of divine intervention, but rather human intention. Rabbi Meir could have waited patiently for a miracle to come in the form of some unknown soul arriving with a kosher megillah in the nick of time. But he knew better. He knew better because the story of Purim is the truer story about the world we live in. It teaches us that the miracles we experience in this world are from G-d, but not by G-d. Miracles come through the talents we each have to bring to the world, as we are saved by the mixture of good fortune and good planning.