Purim to Passover: Divine Intervention vs. Agency

This image was created with the assistance of DALL·E 2
This image was created with the assistance of DALL·E 2

As an Iranian American Jew, one might assume Purim to be my holiday of choice, given its historical significance to my heritage. My wife’s grandfather, a Rabbi from Hamadan (contemporary Shushan in northwest Iran), resided in a city where the legacy of Esther and Mordechai is palpably alive, their tombs a testament to the enduring story. However, it was Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s teachings in Likutey Moharan II #74 that illuminated for me Purim’s profound relevance, making it possibly the preeminent holiday of our time.

Rabbi Nachman’s essay builds several connections between Purim and Passover and teaches us that Purim should put us on notice to begin Passover preparations. The essay also leaves us with a powerful cliffhanger. More on that in a moment.

As we approach Passover, we are commanded to teach our children the story of the Exodus. Our people’s origin story, and where we were forged through the bondage of slavery to understand what it meant to be slaves, and strangers in a strange land. We learned the meaning of justice and empathy as a foundation to fulfill the mandate from Gd, that we should be an example of morality to the world, a light unto the Nations. We struggled, we were oppressed, and Gd saved us. As the joke goes with most of our holidays, the equation is, they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!

The equation applies to Purim as well, but with a crucial difference. In the first commandment, the Torah tells us, “I am Gd, your Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Gd brought us out of the land of Egypt. Gd afflicted the Egyptians with ten plagues, Gd turned Pharaoh’s heart. Of course, Moses and Aaron played active roles in the Exodus story, they were Gd’s conduit, but the overarching narrative is that Gd liberated us. The Purim story is different.

In the Purim story, we also have two protagonists, Esther and Mordechai, but where in the Passover story divine intervention leads the way, in the book of Esther, the name of Gd is completely absent. Couple this with the narrative that after some prodding from Mordechai, it is Esther, through a combination of human ingenuity and courage, who orchestrates salvation. She flips the script on Haman and convinces Achashverosh to allow her people to defend themselves and ultimately, to save themselves.

This shift from divine salvation to human agency is stark; from being passive recipients of God’s miracles in Exodus to active architects of our fate in Purim where we had agency. It is as if in our origin story Gd ‘gave us a fish’ and in the Purim story, we showed Gd ‘we learned how to fish.’

And this is the cliffhanger Rabbi Nachman left us with. At the end of his essay, he says, “For, initially, all beginnings were from Pesach. This is why all the mitzvot are ‘a commemoration of exiting Egypt.’ But now…”

“But Now…”, as if to say in today’s day and age. Rabbi Nachman is willing us to understand the importance of the Purim story, the critical role of agency. To be active in improving our lot.

My paternal grandfather was born in Tehran in 1916 to a poor Jewish tailor. He sold shoelaces in the bazaar as a child. Life was hard. When it rained, he was not allowed to go outside because it was said that the rainwater would run off the dirty Jew and contaminate the water for everyone else. He was determined to lift himself and his progeny out of that life. He succeeded, in spades.

My grandfather, for whom I have the honor to carry his name, enjoyed the Persian tradition of poetry, and there was one poem by Ali-Akbar Gulshan that he would recite to us as a life’s motto:

“Become strong if you have a thirst for living.
In nature, the weak are trampled upon.”

For me, the most important word of the poem is the active word, “become.” Act, work, build, strengthen! Coupling the message of “become” and Rabbi Nachman’s message of “now” is crucial today.

For Israel, it is straightforward. Be militarily, economically, and socially strong. But what does this mean for those of us in the diaspora? We in the diaspora, particularly in America, are blessed to have freedom and agency unlike any other time in our history. We can be strong with our voices. We can be strong with civic actions. We can be strong with our leadership.

October 7th was a wake-up call for all of us. The Jew hatred that many of us knew lay beneath the surface has been put on full display. We must “become strong” to combat it. There is work to do, and we owe it to our ancestors who sacrificed for our benefit, and more importantly, our future generations, to do this work; to become strong, and to flex our muscles, not only for the good of our people but for the good of humanity.

There are many ways we can do this. Become active in the democratic process. Research candidates and support those who share your values and fight to remove those that don’t. Become involved in academic institutions, ensuring they teach true morality. Join and lead civic organizations that help lift the less fortunate, demonstrating tikkun olam. And maybe most importantly, engage in active dialogue, with friend, foe, and the critically important ‘middle.’ If we Jews are the canary in the coal mine, it is not enough for us to shout a warning. We must act!

In the April edition of The Atlantic, Franklin Foer writes, “The Golden Age of the American Jews is Ending.” It would have been very easy for Mordechai to write the same headline when he learned of Haman’s decree. 2500 years of Persian Jewish history has been written because the Jews of Persia had agency and took action.

We certainly live in a time with a great number of Hamans throughout the world, whether that be in Iran, Europe, or even America. But just as Esther acted and gave her people the power to defend themselves, so too must we act. The Golden Age for diaspora Jewry is not a relic of the past but a future we can, and must, actively shape.

About the Author
David Jacques Farahi, a multifaceted investor and philanthropist in the U.S., stands out for his strategic approach to hospitality and gaming and his roles as a board member and adjunct professor — all underpinned by a broad global perspective gained from living across three continents and his ability to converse in French and Persian.
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