In the land of Israel, Purim can adequately compete as the most exhausting Jewish holiday, with children (and even offices) beginning to dress up and exchange gifts from the beginning of the month of Adar straight through the 14th (or in Jerusalem the 15th) of the month when the holiday finally emerges. Purim’s chaotic spirit seems more pronounced that any sanctity it struggles to proclaim.
Purim is a holiday established without any Divine command, with a narrative set in the diaspora and highlighting many of the most taboo of subjects in social discourse. The capitulation to power, gluttony, intermarriage and sexual exploitation create an extraordinary opening to a holy book that inspires the establishment of a Jewish holiday perpetuated by generations. From the overindulgent grand feast in the Persian Empire where the drunken king briefly diverts his attention from the celebration to kill his wife only to wake up with the absurd revelation that he needs to replace her in the opening scene to Esther the young orphaned Jewish girl and her guardian Mordechai who appear as the resolution to the king’s loneliness, the first act draws to a close with the nice Jewish girl living as the newly chosen queen of the self-indulgent Persian Empire. Not necessarily the wholesome image of an ideal Jewish life.
While the twists and turns of the narrative seem to finally reveal the megillah’s epic significance when the king’s vizier Haman seals an edict from the palace calling for the genocide of the Jewish people, this paradigm of Jews facing an existential threat is the all too familiar summary of much of Jewish history. Is Purim merely another they-tried-to-kill-us-and-we-were-saved-now-let’s-eat?
Rabbinic tradition emphasizes something unique about Purim through rather sensational expressions, ‘In the world to come all other holidays will cease to continue except for Purim’ (Midrash Mishlei 9), or ‘When all other books of the Bible are cast off, the Five Books of Moses and the Book of Esther will be all that will remain’ (JT, Meggilah 1:5). The Talmud underscored the prominence of hearing the megillah ‘The Priests and the Levites abandon their Divine service in the Temple to go hear the megillah’ (BT, Megillah 3). Medieval authorities further press, ‘all of the positive commandments of the Torah are cast aside to prioritize the reading of the megillah.’ (Maimonides, MT, Megillah 1:1; Shulchan Arukh, OC 687) These statements are truly dramatic. The messages of these expressions are that Purim while Rabbinic in origin demands our attention now and always.
But what is it about Purim that sets this holiday and the megillah on such a unique pedestal? Purim includes the unique instruction to publicly read the megillah in the evening and then again during the day- a gesture that no other text or holiday includes. With an emphasis on the text to experience the holiday the narrative can help in this quest to understand its epic significance.
When Mordechai learns of the existential threat facing the Jews, the text highlights his going out into the open streets of Shushan, donning sackcloth and ashes and crying a loud and bitter cry. This image is particularly striking because of its direct contrast to Esther, tucked away deep in the palace, having anointed for a full year in a rotation of oils and perfumes all the while remaining silent about her nation and homeland. The dichotomy of these two relatives, steeped in radically different realities, becomes the foundation of the deeply intertwined destiny that begins to find form. But first the narrative establishes the very human, very distinct nature of each of these characters.
Mordechai sends news of the genocidal crisis at hand deep inside Esther’s palace, and faces at best an ambivalent Esther. Mordechai focuses his energy on helping to animate Esther to join his quest to save the Jews from this threat. Finally, Mordechai sends the transformative message to Esther, ‘Who knows if it is for this moment alone that you have arrived in the royal kingdom?’ (Esther 4:14) This question asks Esther to reframe the drama. Until now the grand expressions of power, riches and pomp of Esther have set her apart from Mordechai’s roving and sackcloth-laden-self. Now, Mordechai notes they become the tool for Esther to reinforce her unique identity. The glory of her lot is not found in the soft hydrated skin that she boasts, but rather in the capacity to seize that identity and use it to activate herself.
Esther starts to act. She instructs Mordechai to go out and convene all of the Jews to join her in a fast. This dramatic gesture from the comfort of her royal throne is Esther’s affirmation of self- her spirit, her religion and her community. The isolated queen unites with the persecuted on the streets. The woman ensconced in a palace with hundred-day-feasts, joins others in fast. This metamorphosis empowers Esther to orchestrate her political maneuvering, revoke the decree of Haman and save her entire nation. Unleashed by Mordechai’s perspective and encouragement, Esther discovers the capacity to step forward and thrive.
Letters are sent to call the lands to share news of the salvation, and it is declared that future generations will establish this holiday. We are told to include a festival meal, share food with one another and extend our concern to give gifts to people with limited means. While the text emphasized the individuality of Esther and Mordechai, the salvation comes when they act together. When Mordechai chose to empower Esther to actualize her own capacity, Esther’s first act was to go ahead and embolden others, assembling the masses to spiritual activism. This casual sequence galvanized Esther, unbridled her creative capacity and inspired her bold action that literally saved the Jews. The choice to live, to connect and encourage each other is epic moment of the Megillah’s salvation.
Rabbinic imagination suggests yet another far reaching dimension to the Purim holiday. A dangling participle of the Sinai narrative is raised. When we stood at Sinai to receive the Torah we were threatened by the all-encompassing power of God and as such the Rabbis struggle to maintain that our ‘acceptance of the Torah’ at Sinai was representative of our own free will. ‘However’, Rabbinic tradition excitedly declares, the megillah describes the Jews in the wake of the salvation from Haman’s evil intentions as ‘rising up and accepting’ the establishment of the annual holiday of Purim (Esther 9:27). This, the Rabbis teach closes the circle as the full expression of free will that resolves the suspicions of coerced acceptance of the Torah. (BT, Shabbat 88a) The arch of the Purim story in-effect represents the completion of the Divine covenant of the Torah with the Jewish people. The Divine covenant that finally activated humans.
This re-characterization of the megillah places a proud emphasis upon the megillah’s unmasking of the most primitive of human experiences. We learn from Esther to rouse ourselves amidst the circumstances of our own lives and Mordechai models the significant gesture of encouraging others. As each of the commandments surrounding Purim day attest, we venture beyond our singular existence. We seek out the voices and welfare of others and in connecting to our shared humanity we forge the complete acceptance of the Torah of the Divine. This is the true revelation of the Torah. This chaos is the beauty that makes Purim truly holy.