If there is one paradise in the world in which the beauty of the Lithuanian Yeshiva and Hasidic worlds synthesize and coalesce with intoxicating joy, it is on Coney Island Avenue in the Brooklyn section of New York, during the wee hours of the holiday of Purim. As the sun begins to set, students and followers gather inside Yeshiva of Rabbi Chaim Berlin Yeshiva, where they will sing, dance, and rejoice over words of Torah coming from the head of their Yeshiva. This practice has been started by the late Rabbi Isaac Hutner, who himself embodied a mixture of the Hasidic and Lithuanian Yeshiva worlds, and continued by his devoted student, Rabbi Aaron Schechter. I, and thousands of others, have very fond memories of these celebrations, which allowed for Purim to depart in a way filled with joy and insight.
I remember those celebrations very vividly.
As a young man, I had the privilege of eating at the home of Rabbi Schechter, spending many Shabbos meals there, basking in his graciousness and insights. Seeing the Rabbi sit at the head of the table, with the band playing the same songs they had been traditionally playing for years, with bleachers packed with students, and thoughts on the Megilah shared between every set of songs, was an intensely joyous and inspiring experience. It is in this setting that Rabbi Hutner shared his insights on the Megilah, later committed to print in his famous book Pachad Yitzchak.
Of the countless ideas conveyed by Rav Hutner and echoed by Rav Ahron was the notion that Purim is the only holiday centered around Jews being in exile. Each and every other Jewish holiday—including Chanukah—has Israel as its epicenter. The three festivals, Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, are all centered around Temple service and the agriculture of the land of Israel. Purim is the only holiday centered outside of Israel. Not only is Purim centered around the diaspora, but its very essence is also centered around the diaspora—from beginning to end. Not only is Purim centered around a geographical exile, but it is also centered around physical, spiritual, and political exile. The Purim story’s happy end pretty much leaves Jews at where they were at the beginning: a powerless minority in a foreign land.
Indeed, the Talmud, struggling with the question of why it is that we do not recite Hallel on Purim, states (Megilah 14a) that since Hallel requires saying “praise God all of his servants” and “we are still servants of Achashverosh,” we do not say Hallel on Purim. The idea behind not saying Hallel being that in no way did the miracle of Purim bring about national or political independence. We begin the story in exile and end it with exile.
What then are we celebrating on Purim?
If indeed we do end up in square one, as slaves of Achashverosh, why celebrate, to begin with? It would seem like Purim is a holiday of status quo—not something we would celebrate.
While there are many great Jewish scholars and thinkers—Medieval and beyond—who have to see Purim as an Israel and Temple-rebuilding-bound holiday—Rav Hutner’s school of thought saw Purim as a holiday centered on our lives in the diaspora. “A Yom Tov of Golus,” as I have heard Rabbi Aaron Schachter explain it. In this view, the Jewish people’s ability to survive as a minority in exile is both a physical and spiritual miracle. Indeed it is a testimony to Judaism’s spiritual resilience and God’s message to us that we can survive and thrive in exile as well.
Rabbi Hutner famously uses a parable to explain this idea. The Talmud states that in the Messianic era, all the holidays will be diminished—except for the holiday of Purim. Rabbi Hutner likens this to a story in which two individuals are locked together in a dark room at night and need to get to know one another. One way to get to know each other is by talking to each other in the dark. Another way they can get to know each other is by simply turning on the lights. Which way is better? While you may think turning on the lights is simpler, once the sun rises in the morning, you will be able to see, rendering what you learned from by turning on the lights useless. If, on the other hand, you get to know the other person through conversation and listening, when the sun rises, you will have benefited from learning about the other person in two very different ways.
Similarly, Rabbi Hutner explains, most Jewish holidays focus on a miraculous spiritual process pertaining to the supernatural, which is why their significance will be diminished in the messianic era when open miracles will be common. Purim, on the other hand, is all about the natural. It is how God miraculously protects us, even when disguised. Purim is about God’s secret hand arranging things to be in the right place at the right time, protecting us through our life in exile. This is why Purim will be doubly valued in the messianic era of open miracles—realizing God is able to be our Rock and Protector, even while hidden in nature. Indeed, status quo is something to celebrate. Being able to lead our lives in exile is indeed cause for celebration. This is true both on a physical level and spiritual level.
The great American 20th-century scholar, Huston Smith writes in his book The Religions of Man:” Jewish survival cannot be explained by natural forces. We have already quoted the judgment of a sociologist that “by every sociological law the Jews should have perished long ago”; to which we may now add that of a noted philosopher, Nicholas Berdyaev: “The continued existence of Jewry down the centuries is rationally inexplicable.”
France’s King Louis the 16th famously asked famed mathematician Blaise Pascal if he had any proof of God’s existence, to which Pascal famously answered, “Why the Jews, Your Majesty, the Jews!”
Pascal also wrote in his book:” The Jews have outlived all the civilizations of antiquity. These people are not eminent solely by their antiquity, but are also singular by their duration, which has always continued from their origin till now.”
Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy famously wrote:” What is the Jew? … What kind of unique creature is this whom all the rulers of all the nations of the world have disgraced and crushed and expelled and destroyed; persecuted, burned and drowned, and who, despite their anger and their fury, continues to live and to flourish?”
On Purim, we recognize that there is no status quo in exile; we recognize that if we are alive and well as a nation in the diaspora, that is already a miracle.
This miracle is also true on a spiritual level because surviving physically in exile is no simple task, but surveying spiritually can be even more difficult. The book of Esther begins with Jews participating in Achashverosh’s feasts, not seeming to care much for the separate identity. As the book goes on, the Jewish people realize for the first time in our history outside the borders of Israel that they have a shared fate, identiy, destiny, and faith. Fasting for Esther’s success, the Jews realize they must unite so they can be saved. They also realize that they need a sacred combination of spiritual and diplomatic to survive in exile and that with no strong and unified identity, there is no way we can last.
Every Purim, I reflect with yearning on the warmth, joy, wisdom, and inspiration I merited basking in, listening to the words of the Rabbi in the Yeshiva Chaim Berlin’s Purim celebration. With the Rabbi blowing kisses and insights at his students, I recognized that this is the miracle of Purim. Indeed it is a “Yom Tov of Golus,” an exile we can only survive with strong, happy, unified, and uncompromised shared identity and knowledge of who we are.