The Hebrew calendar is a map for navigating our psychological and spiritual growth, as individuals, as Jews, and as inhabitants of our ancestral ecosystem. At the darkest point of the year, we gather together in our homes and light candles, to participate in the longed-for returning of light to the world. A few weeks later, as the sap inside the trees around us begins to rise, we plant trees and eat fruit. The new year for trees, Tu b’Shvat, reminds us of the new wave of life that is rising with the coming spring, around us and inside us. Both of these festivals help us to prepare for the next step on our journey, which is Purim – a joyful celebration of the life-affirming power of owning what we don’t know, and what we don’t control.
Chanukah is the sister festival of Purim. Both originated during periods of exile, that is alienation from our ideal state, and both contain many vital lessons for us in navigating our still-imperfect world. In Jewish mysticism or Kaballah, Chanukah is associated with the quality of Hod, often translated as Glory or Gratitude. Our tradition teaches that Hod also evokes the idea of self-expression at any cost, of doing what we feel we must, regardless of the consequences. The Maccabees of the Chanukah story went out to fight for glory, against overwhelming odds, with no realistic chance of success. Moreover, since the Torah teaches us that we may not expect or depend on miracles, the Maccabees were acting questionably in risking mass-suicide. Nonetheless, according to Kaballah, the Maccabees’ act of Hod is answered, every year, by the apparent rebirth of the sun, and the gradual lengthening of the days from that point onwards – something to be grateful for.
Purim corresponds to the quality of Netzach, often translated as Triumph or Eternity, which sits directly opposite Hod in Kaballah’s primary map of existence, the Tree of Life. Whereas the miracles of Chanukah are a response to human audacity and self-expression, the miracles of Purim are inevitable – as the Purim story, known as the Megillah, itself says. At the very climax of the Megillah, the heroine, Esther, is given an opportunity to step up and save her entire people, but at the risk of her own life. Her uncle Mordechai tells her: “If you remain silent at this time, relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, and you and your father’s household will perish”. (4:14)
According to Kabbalah, Mordechai is saying that there is something absolutely necessary about the miracles of Purim. Esther can affect her own role in the unfolding drama, and its impact on her family, but she cannot decisively alter the global result. If Chanukah instills us with a deep awe of the tremendous power of human agency, Purim reminds us, as Spring moves subtly towards its apex, that something about the rebirth of life is not in our hands. We may choose to partner and participate with it, or not, but all that we can affect through our decisions is ourselves, and our local spheres of influence. Reading the Megillah, and attending to the other obligations of the festival, disabuses us of our delusions of omnipotence and invites us to focus our energies where they can have most effect.
Purim’s inevitable miracles are also hidden ones, that occur under the ground and behind the scenes, in secretive conspiracies and exclusive soirees. Purim is mirrored by festivals in other cultures which celebrate the discreet victory of the burgeoning spring against the last frosts of winter. Silently, under the surface, nature has reached her tipping point, the tables have turned and Spring’s visible culmination will soon follow. As we say in the Megillah: “It was turned on its head!” (The Hebrew sounds better: “Ve-Nahafoch Hu!”)
Even the name of the festival reverberates with hiddenness and inevitability. The word “Purim” means “lots,” as in a lottery. Haman, the villain of the Megillah, uses a secret lottery to decide when to annihilate the Jews, not realizing he is merely revealing the pre-destined date of his own demise. While the bright lights of Chanukah commemorate conspicuous piety and manifest salvation, the narrative of the Megillah seems to be mere happenstance. Life and death are decided by a lottery, and deliverance unfolds through a series of unlikely coincidences. The Megillah is the only book of the Hebrew Bible not to even mention God’s name – if we wish to see some greater plan, we must actively look for it. When Spring reaches the height of her beauty, that will be overtly visible, and we will come together to celebrate it on Pesach (Passover). But for now, the calendar is asking us to pay attention to the more subtle gifts of Purim, this strange marker along the way.
The Revelation of Knowing that We Know Nothing
Kabbalah teaches that every festival is associated with individuals who embody its unique quality, through whom we can understand it more completely. Chanukah and Hod are associated with the prophetess Hannah and the High Priest, Aaron. Purim and Netzach are associated with Aaron’s siblings, Miriam and Moses, which is more than a little surprising, given that they lived eight hundred years before the events of the Megillah. One might think that Miriam and Moses would be natural choices for the Kabbalists to connect with Pesach, of which they were the undisputed heroes.
Unsurprisingly, Pesach, the spring festival of liberation, is one of our calendar’s primary points of re-beginning. Our years are counted from the autumnal festival of Rosh Hashana, but our months are renewed in the spring, from the month of Pesach – Nissan. Purim occurs at the end of each cycle of months, on the full moon farthest from the previous Pesach, and hence immediately preceding the following one. It is simultaneously the closing of one year’s journey, and a crucial stage of preparation for the next. And, as the Kabbalists were trying to tell us, Purim is also the culmination of the life’s work of Miriam and Moses.
Our tradition teaches that if not for his big sister Miriam, Moses would never have been conceived, or raised with a connection to his own people. As a young child, Miriam foresaw that her mother would give birth to our people’s redeemer, and she instructed her father to overcome his despair and re-marry her mother. The fruit of their renewed love was Moses. Moses and Miriam made possible our emancipation from slavery, and led us in celebratory song on the banks of the Red Sea. But this was not the climax of their lives’ work, for the exodus was not an end in itself – it was a new beginning that culminated in our communion with the Divine, in receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.
After we leave Egypt, Miriam’s miraculous well sustains us with water – often used as a metaphor for Torah – throughout our forty years in the wilderness. And it is Moses, our greatest leader and prophet, who brings down the actual Torah, from the infinite heavens, to this little blue and green ball. Moses is able to achieve this extraordinary feat of receptivity only because of his unparalleled humility. Moses’ lack of enslavement to his ego means that he can serve as a channel for Divinity into the world, and not distort it with his own agenda. Kabbalah teaches that Moses is associated with Purim because its hidden, inevitable miracles offer us an opportunity to experience profound humility, and hence to receive an equally profound revelation of insight into our own lives.
The inevitable and concealed nature of Purim’s miracles invites us to reflect on, and to celebrate, our consciousness of what we can’t control, and what we simply don’t know. In a society that hyper-commodifies knowledge, and often rewards those who pretend to be more in control than they really are, this is radically subversive and deeply liberating. Whereas on Chanukah it is human choices that determine the ultimate outcome, on Purim we are reminded of the limits of our influence, and we practice focusing our energies on our immediate environment. Accordingly, we are enjoined to give gifts to those we are most tangibly connected to – our friends and family, and also to the needy in our local communities. Through these acts, we remind ourselves of the power of our choices to make a concrete change that will be felt and appreciated in the mini-universes we each inhabit.
Purim’s invitation to consider the limits of our knowledge is perhaps my favourite aspect of the festival, as I think it is the most transformative, if we dare to take it seriously. Judaism, like all of the world’s great religions, is based on an enormously rich tradition, replete with longstanding ideas about how we should behave. But does anyone, ever, have all the answers? Purim reminds us that the more we know, the more questions we should have.
As we celebrate, we are obligated to become so intoxicated that we cannot tell the difference between our usual conceptions of “good” and “evil”. We read the Megillah and feast, not in our usual attire, but in fancy dress and masks, reminding us of the disguises and back-room intrigues of the story, and of the concealed victory of the spring in our ecosystem. My friends and I like to remind each other of these teachings by using a famous quote from the Talmud as a joyful greeting, and toast: “ad de-lo yada!” – “until one know longer knows!”
Getting drunk and wearing fancy dress may sound like child’s play, and of course Purim is a wonderful festival for children. But as adults, this festival offers us a profound opportunity to re-discover who we are. Like Miriam, we can nurture and act upon our hopes that shoots of new life may emerge from the most unlikely of places. And we can emulate Moses by emptying ourselves of our habitual preconceptions – what we think we know – in order to receive something new.
In doing so, we will be walking in the well-trodden paths of our forebears, who were saved from certain death by the events of the very first Purim. Our tradition teaches that in response to that salvation, our ancestors completed the mission of Miriam and Moses by re-accepting the Torah upon themselves, with a deeper commitment than ever before. Until this point, Torah had been forced upon us by undeniable acts of Divine intervention, but Purim’s unique hiddenness offered them, as it offers us, a chance to make our decisions from a place of true freedom.
On Purim’s full moon, we empty ourselves of certainty, and open to possibilities we may have never previously imagined. On the subsequent full moon, we will reenact the exodus from Egypt, as Spring reaches her beautiful crescendo, walking through the birth canal of the Red Sea as life is reborn in all of its splendour in the world around us. Purim is the closing of last year’s Pesach story, the completion of Miriam’s and Moses’ life mission, and hence it is the perfect preparation to begin the story all over again, but this time higher, deeper, and more alive. If we can open ourselves to what we don’t know, and don’t control, we might just learn what we need to, to leave our own personal Egypt’s far behind.