For that reason these days were named Purim, after pur. In view, then, of all the instructions in the said letter and of what they had experienced in that matter and what had befallen them, the Jews undertook and irrevocably obligated themselves and their descendants, and all who might join them, to observe these two days in the manner prescribed and at the proper time each year” (Esther 9:26-27).
Purim is probably the Jewish holiday most associated with fun and revelry until a person actually does a close reading of Megillat Esther. While scholars recognize the satire implicit in the Esther story, the spiritual implications of Purim are no laughing matter. Megillat Esther constructs a world where the Jewish people’s survival is at-risk and God is nowhere to be found. Amidst the costumes, graggers, and hamantaschen, Purim asks us profound questions with answers that can make us shudder.
Mystical and Hasidic commentators use this seriousness to draw connections between Purim and, of all holidays, Yom Kippur. The original connection is linguistic, where the two holidays are linked by the word pur, the same word found in both Pur-im and Yom Ki-ppurim. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev expands on the greater meaning that can be drawn from this linguistic connection:
The holy Zohar teaches that the Day of Atonement is called Yom Kippurim (ke-Purim), “a day like Purim.” The light of Yom Kippur is like that of Purim. As of Yom Kippur, that which has passed is all negated; now you are pure and the accounting begins anew…The true illumination of Yom Kippur is that of acquiring a new heart to serve God, “so that we cease the oppression of our hands and return to do the decrees of Your will.” So too on Purim, the past is negated and now we accept anew the yoke of God’s Torah and commandments” (Kedushat Levi (Kedushat Purim 1), in Speaking Torah, Vol. 2, ed. Arthur Green, 206).
On Yom Kippur, every Jew must face his/her/their mortality as an individual, and on Purim the Jewish people must face our mortality as a collective. Purim recalls a past when things were far worse in order to examine how we might approach the future with kindness and devotion to God. This is one of the reasons why the narrator of Megillat Esther goes to such great lengths to demand that Purim, a holiday never mentioned in the Torah, should be observed forever.
Jewish institutions are no strangers to worrying about the past and the future in equal measure. In many ways, we worry about past moments of persecution because we know that another trying moment in our history could be right around the corner. And while this attitude serves as an important reminder about why Judaism is important, sometimes worrying about the past and the future results in ignoring the needs of the present. Most leaders know that “we’ve always done it this way” is an irrational allegiance to the past that stops progress; yet only worrying about how what we do now will affect the future can result in ignoring the Jews who need us now.
When I find myself worrying too much about the past and the future, giving short shrift to the present, I think about poker. When I was younger, I played a lot of poker, although I will confess that I was terrible and ended most nights at a loss. And yet poker taught me a great deal about the danger of “resulting,” of assuming that the only way to determine whether or not a decision was good is to look at the end result and work backwards. Professional poker player Annie Duke writes about this in her fantastic book Thinking in Bets. She writes:
Life, like poker, is one long game, and there are going to be a lot of losses, even after making the best possible bets. We are going to do better, and be happier, if we start by recognizing that we’ll never be sure of the future. That changes our task from trying to be right every time, an impossible job, to navigating our way through the uncertainty by calibrating our beliefs to move toward, little by little, a more accurate and objective representation of the world. With strategic foresight and perspective, that’s manageable work. If we keep learning and calibrating, we might even get good at it” (231).
Every time we experience a great win or great loss, there is danger in drawing too many conclusions about that one moment in the past for every other moment in the future. Yet the information we learn from past moments is invaluable to ensure that we are smarter the next time. Purim asks us to remember the past not only because we do not want to repeat it, but because learning from one past event teaches us many important lessons for today and tomorrow.
As we approach Purim, leaders need to think about their vision of the Jewish future as informed by the Jewish past. But to the extent that we can, all of us must remember the Jews of the present, who need us right here and right now.
Hag Purim Sameah.