Purim and the challenge of the Holocaust
In a remarkable midrash on Mishlei, we read the following:
“All of the festivals will be nullified in the future [the messianic age], but Purim will never be nullified.” (Midrash Mishlei 9:2)
This assertion seems to fly in the face of Jewish tradition, which states categorically that the Jewish festivals mentioned in the Torah, such as Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot will never cease to be celebrated. This is mentioned by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah:
“All the books of the Prophets and all the Scriptures will be nullified in the days of the Mashiach, except for Megillat Esther, which is as permanent as the Five Books of Moshe and the laws of the Oral Torah [including the festivals], which will never lose their relevance.” (Hilchot Megillah 2:18. For a completely different interpretation, see my booklet The Torah as God’s Mind: A Kabbalistic look into the Pentateuch [Jerusalem: Bep-Ron Publications, 1988])
Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, in his famous commentary Torah Temimah on Megillat Esther (9:28), explains this contradiction – in the name of his father, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Halevi Epstein – in the following most original manner:
The miracle of Purim is very different from the miracles mentioned in the Torah. While the latter were overt miracles, such as the ten plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, the revelation at Sinai and the falling of the man (manna) in the desert, the miracle of Purim was covert. Unlike with the miracles narrated in the Torah, no law of nature was ever violated in the Purim story, and the Jews were saved from the hands of Haman harasha (the evil Haman) by seemingly normal historical occurrences. Had we lived in those days we would have noticed nothing unusual, and many secularists would have explained the redemption of the Jews in Persia as the logical outcome of a series of natural and coincidental events. Only retroactively, when looking back at the story, would we have been astonished by all the incidents, their unusual sequence, and the seemingly unrelated and insignificant human acts that led to the complete redemption of the Jews during the time of Achashveirosh’s reign. The discovery that all these events actually concealed a miracle could only be made after the fact.
Covert miracles will never cease to exist, explains the Torah Temimah. In fact, they take place every day. But overt miracles such as the splitting of the Red Sea have come to an end. In light of this, the midrash on Mishlei is not suggesting that the actual festivals mentioned in the Torah will be nullified in future days, since this would contradict Jewish belief. Rather, it is stating that the original reasons for celebrating the festivals, namely overt miracles, have ceased.
So, one should read the midrash as follows: Overt miracles, which we celebrate on festivals mentioned in the Torah, no longer occur. But covert miracles such as those celebrated on Purim will never end; they continue to occur every day of the year. In other words, all the other festivals will still be celebrated to commemorate great historical events in Jewish history, events to be remembered and relived in the imagination of man so as to make them relevant and teach us many lessons for our own lives. Purim, on the other hand, although rooted in a historical event of many years ago, functions as a constant reminder that the Purim story never ended. We are still living it. The Megillah is open-ended; it was not and will never be completed! Covert miracles still happen.
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner z”l, in his celebrated work Pachad Yitzchak (volume on Purim, chapter 33), uses this idea to explain a highly unusual halachic stipulation related to Purim. During all Torah festivals, the congregation sings Hallel, the well-known, classic compilation of specific Psalms. These Psalms praise God for all the great miracles He performed for Israel in biblical times, on occasions for which these festivals were later established. Why, then, asks the Talmud, do we not sing Hallel on Purim? Is there not even more reason to sing these Psalms on the day when God performed the great miracle of rescuing Israel from the hands of Haman? The Talmud (Masechet Megillah 14a) answers “kriyata zu hallila” – the reading of Megillat Esther is in itself praise. When one reads the story of Esther, one actually fulfills the obligation of singing Hallel, because telling this story is the greatest praise to God for having saved the Jews. Reading the story awakens in us a feeling of deep gratitude and appreciation for the miracle of Jewish survival against all odds.
Interestingly, one of the most celebrated commentators on the Talmud, Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249-1315), ponders the need to say Hallel on Purim when one is unable to read or hear the Megillah. In this case, according to his opinion, one should indeed sing Hallel, since one must thank God for what happened. Rabbi Hutner, however, points out that no other authority agrees with this opinion. They all rule that even if a person is unable to read the Megillah, they should still not sing Hallel.
Rabbi Hutner explains this ruling in a most remarkable way, based on our earlier explanation. The psalms in Hallel speak about overt miracles and praise God for His revealed wonders such as those related in the Torah. Hallel intentionally does not include praise to God for covert miracles, since those must be praised in a hidden way so as to remind the worshipper that such miracles occur on a daily basis. This is the reason why on Purim one reads Megillat Esther and does not recite Hallel. Megillat Esther is the story of a hidden miracle, and through the reading of this story in front of a congregation, God receives praise in the appropriate way – in a subtle and hidden manner. After all, it is not God who needs praise, but people who need to praise; they must therefore do it in a way that corresponds to the actual miracle. They have to realize what kind of miracle took or takes place. Singing Hallel, instead, would be missing the point.
Moreover, one often wonders why the story of Purim is still relevant at all after the Holocaust. Not even a hidden miracle was performed to save the Jews from the hands of Hitler, a greater enemy than Haman. Why continue to praise God for a hidden miracle when it seems that even hidden miracles came to an end with the Holocaust? This question should be on the mind of every Jew who celebrates Purim. And it is not only the Holocaust that should raise this issue. The Spanish Inquisition; the many pogroms; and the various forms of exterminating complete Jewish communities throughout all of Jewish history, in which God’s saving hand was absent; all of these beg that very question. Shouldn’t these events convince Jews to abolish Purim altogether? History has proven Purim to be irrelevant and even offensive. How can we continue celebrating Purim when six million Jews, collectively, did not see the hidden hand of God and were left with no divine intervention? Is celebrating Purim not an affront to all those millions who were tortured and died under the most hideous circumstances?
Hundreds of personal stories describe how Jews risked their lives to rejoice in their Jewishness while facing the Nazis’ atrocities. In the extermination camps they celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach and even Purim, and they literally had to decide whether to sing Hallel after failed attempts to find a Megillah. What was it that kept them going? Was it just wishful thinking? What they realized then, as never before, was the eternity and indestructibility of the Jews. Perpetuity is the very essence of the Jews. When Rabbi Moshe Friedman of Boyan, a towering personality and great Talmid Chacham in pre-war Poland, was brought to Auschwitz with a transport of deeply religious Jews, during Pesach 1943, he was asked to undress prior to the “shower.” He turned to the Oberscharführer, grasped the lapel of his Nazi jacket and said to him: “You, the most despicable murderers in the world! Don’t imagine for one moment that you will succeed in destroying the Jewish people. The Jewish nation will live forever. It will not vanish from the stage of history; instead, you will be erased and disappear.” (See Eliezer Berkovits, With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Deathcamps, [New York & London: Sanhedrin Press, 1979] pp.110-111)
It was indeed the famous, slightly anti-Semitic historian Arnold Toynbee who, with great annoyance, alluded to what history has taught us: any nation that will stand up against the Jews will ultimately disappear. Such was the fate of the ancient Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians and the Greeks, and such may yet be the fate of the Germans. (Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, 10 volumes, 1934-61)
Jews have been an ever-dying people that never died. They have experienced a continuous resurrection, like the dry bones that Yechezkel saw in the valley. (Yechezkel 37:1-14) This has become the sine qua non of every Jew. It is the mystery of the hidden miracle of survival in the face of overwhelming destruction. True, Führer was Amalek, and Haman prevailed, but ultimately they were defeated. We live in spite of peril. Our refusal to surrender has turned our story into one long, unending Purim tale. To this day, a large part of the world does not know what to do with us. We make them feel uneasy because we represent something they can’t put their finger on. Jews are sui generis. More than anything else, it is the existence and survival of the State of Israel that irritates many. The rules of history predicted that the Jews would die a definite and final death; instead we have become the greatest success story in all of modern history. Perplexity morphed into aversion. Where does this small nation, which does not comprise even one percent of the world population, have the chutzpah to play such a crucial role in science, technology, and many other areas of human knowledge?
What would the world do without Jews, who are responsible for so many inventions that are vital to the survival of the modern world? Great progress and major breakthroughs in the world of medicine, such as the treatment of paralysis, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and DNA breakdown, are Israeli accomplishments. What about Windows, voice mail, and the most advanced anti-terror systems? Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation, and in proportion to its population has the largest number of start-up companies in the world. It is ranked second in the world for venture capital funds. And the list goes on.
Even if, God forbid, the State of Israel would not survive Iran – the Haman of our day – every Jew instinctively knows that the Jewish people will endure, even without their homeland, and will climb the ladder and surprise the world once again. Purim will never cease.
As the camp commander…took a number of young Gerer Chassidim to be put to death, one of them, Israel Eisenberg, asked for permission to say a few words of farewell to his friends. I stood opposite them and heard every word. He did not speak many words….He got hold of the hands of another young man and started singing. They were calling to each other: “Kiddush Hashem, the most important thing, let us rejoice!” They all began to sing and to dance as if a fire had been lit within them. Their sidelocks, which were then hidden under their hats, they now pulled out and let them hang over their faces. They paid no attention to what was going on around them. They were dancing and singing. And I thought I would lose my senses; that young people should go to their death as one goes to a dance! Thus dancing, they jumped into the pit as a rain of bullets was pouring down on them. (Eliezer Berkovits, ibid, pp. 111-112, as told by a Kapo in the Plaszow concentration camp)
Which Jew, even secular, or atheist, dares to betray these young people by not celebrating Purim? Which Jew dares to ignore Judaism, thereby being guilty of spiritual bankruptcy in the face of these fearless Chassidim? This is the ultimate question that all Jews must ask themselves. Not to do so would be a tragic dereliction of duty.
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