Robert Lichtman

Purim used to be easy

Wikimedia Commons

The town was so small that it was bound to happen one day. Two parties headed out on separate roads. Half of the town woefully accompanied the coffin of a beloved one to the cemetery. The other half of the town happily escorted a couple to their wedding festivities. They all froze as they reached the only intersection of the town simultaneously. Who should go first? The town leaders convened and resolved that sorrow would yield to joy; the wedding party would proceed, and then the funeral entourage would go along its way.

Indeed, this is the scenario presented by the Talmud (Ketubot 17a) to teach that when a sad time bumps up against a happy one, happiness takes precedence. This is why sometimes the period of Shiva is cut short when the joy of a Jewish holiday coincides with and overtakes the mournful mood.  At least, that is the scenario that Judaism would prefer. To be sure, there are some sorrows that simply cannot be suffocated.

How are we to observe Purim 5784?  Individuals who are within their year of personal mourning have customs upon which to rely. There are guidelines for them to follow and boundaries for them to observe. But what is the Purim practice for an entire Jewish people in mourning? Compounding this question, what is the Purim practice for the Jewish people at war?

The eternal nature of Purim

Purim is oh-so-mistakenly referred to as a minor holiday. There is perhaps no other day that is more quintessentially Jewish emotionally, theologically, and in its straightforward effectiveness at conveying a substantial strand of our story. Purim contains such a dense double-helix DNA of Jewish history and destiny that the Midrash Mishlei (9:1) based on Esther (9:28) teaches that after the arrival of the Messiah, all Jewish holidays will disappear. All of them except for Purim.

There is another Jewish practice that is thought to be perpetual. Soon after Purim we will sit at a Passover seder as the Haggadah guides us to recall the Exodus from Egypt “all the days of your life.” We will be invited to wonder what we may learn from the seemingly superfluous word, “all.”

The sages offer this view, “the days of your life” means that we are to recall the Exodus while we are in this natural world, and the word “all” adds that we are to recall the Exodus, in their words: “l’havee li’y’mot haMashiach,” usually understood as “even after the Messianic Era.”

But that phrase “l’havee li’y’mot haMashiach,” may also be taken literally, meaning “to bring us to the messianic era.” In other words, the sages are revealing a power that we hold: Recalling the Exodus endows us with the ability to bring our world to the threshold of the messianic era.

What is it about an event as ancient as the Exodus that it contains such capacity to inspire the Jewish people throughout all time and unleashes the power to bring the Messiah at the end of time?

The legacy of the Exodus

The Exodus from Egypt that we are bidden to recall does not begin with the crossing of the Red Sea. The evil in Egypt was embedded so deeply in its people and its culture that it had to be extinguished. The Exodus saga traces God’s every act to destroy a genocidal regime with God’s own hands, as it were.  Our rescue at the Red Sea was not the essence of the Exodus; it was the final event which emanated from the inception of the epic, that being God’s intervention, wielding unimaginable power to destroy incomprehensible evil. Throughout God’s strangling of Egypt with 10 plagues, culminating with the army’s drowning under the sea, God directs us to watch what God does to the Egyptians. We are not bidden to watch merely as witnesses to God’s power, but as apprentices to God’s practice. The Eternal One set an example for us that our eternal mission as a newly-formed people is not to wait for God, but to emulate God by bearing our power to intervene in worldly events, to confront and to destroy evil. Recalling the Exodus is our daily recommitment to this mission.

Our pledge was put to the test in short order. Before we could find firm footing in the desert, we were attacked by the nation of Amalek who sought our total destruction. The battle was ours, but the trauma was so formative to our new sense of nationhood that God memorialized it in our Torah to reverberate throughout time.

Exodus as prelude to Purim

The Egyptian mantle of evil was passed on to Haman about 1,000 years after the Exodus when he obtained King Ahasuerus’ sanction for global genocide against all Jewish subjects.  Haman’s plan, as described in Esther 3:13, sounds terrifyingly foreshadowing of October 7th: “to destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day.” (Emphasis added. Thanks to Michal Horowitz for this insight.)

Fully aware of their impending fate and facing state-sponsored annihilation, the Jews sought a reprieve through reversal of the original royal decree authorizing their destruction, only to learn from a newly sympathetic Ahasuerus that “an edict that has been written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet may not be revoked,” (Esther 8:8). Still, they were able to secure the right to save their own lives. In the face of a global massacre, the Jewish people sought a peaceful resolution, but without other recourse and only reluctantly, they took on the role that God modeled at the Exodus as eradicator of evil. In the ensuing battle, some 75,500 Persians who sought to murder Jews were themselves cut down by Jewish defenders.

Three verses above all others

Of the 5,845 verses in the Torah, there are only three verses that are literally required reading in the presence of the entire Jewish people at least once a year. They are the words that God taught to reflect upon that post-Exodus battle with Amalek,

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – How, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all those straggling (acharecha-) at your rear. Therefore, when your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25: 17–19).

These verses are read on the Shabbat prior to Purim and hints that perhaps Haman was not only a spiritual descendant of Amalekite evil, but a genetic one as well.

Despite our Jewishly optimistic view of the world, we are too-often slapped with the painful reminder from the Haggadah that “in every generation they rise up to destroy us.” Today’s war in Israel is tragically notable for being ignited by the greatest rising up and murder of Jews since the Holocaust. The number continues to grow with every fallen Israeli defender.  The enemy surprised and attacked Israelis who were neglected, unguarded – acharecha – at the rear, those living at the border, the most vulnerable among any in southern Israel. And in Israel’s noble and God-like effort to eradicate evil, the IDF has taken perhaps more enemy lives than at any time since Purim, and with them, unfortunately, the terribly sad loss of life among non-combatants. The very shifting of the ground beneath people’s feet extends beyond Gaza to Jewish communities around the world that are reeling from an onslaught of Jew-hatred that is unmasked, unequivocal and violently unleashed as a human behavior that apparently will never change.

Holidays accompany us

Jewish holidays and observances are multi-dimensional. They are not designed to curate nostalgia, but are stuffed with relevance to be unpacked and applied to our present moment and as a template to guide our future. What is it about these experiences that Jews will draw upon Passover and Purim for strength and resolve long into our future?

Until the Messiah comes, indeed in our efforts l’havee – to bring that time, violent hatred will be confronted by a Jewish nation that carries the Exodus-induced mission to conquer evil. Once we arrive at the messianic era, we may shed our obligation to recall the Exodus because the mission we accepted to eradicate evil will have been achieved.

As counterintuitive as this may seem, I suggest that even in a messianic future of universal peace, as long as God’s gift of free will animates human activity, the stench of antisemitism may linger. The Purim miracle is attributed to a God who is hidden in the story; the rabbis suggest that God our King is alluded to when the Megillah uses the word “king” in reference to Ahasuerus. Just as Ahasuerus’ royal decrees could not be undone, free will allows for the free hatred of the other to endure as an eternal fact of life, an axiom as immutable as an edict from the king that may not be revoked.

The way the Jewish nation will ensure victory over hatred will not be through bloodshed, for we will have beaten our swords into plowshares. Victory will come, starting now, by searching for those who are “straggling,” those who are vulnerable, rescuing them from lagging behind and embracing them. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Zachs (Iturei Torah, Ki Teitzei; Thanks to Rabbi Irwin Kula for citing this source) views those three momentous verses and the notion of vulnerability from a new perspective. He deftly probes the word “acharecha – at your rear,” to extract the root word “acher – different” and he teaches that if the Jewish people had not neglected those who seemed different, but rather, “had brought them under the protection of the Divine Presence…by including them with the rest of the population, Amalek could not have harmed them.” Hate may persist forever, but when we welcome and shield those who are vulnerable, we will all become invulnerable to it.

A new form of Holocaust denial

There is another, more startling lesson to be learned by paying close attention to these three verses that we are mandated to read at Purim time. The verses recall how the cowardly Amalekites attacked us by surprise, yet – note this carefully – the Purim saga to which this required Torah reading is attached contains no element of surprise. Haman’s plot was publicly proclaimed nearly a year in advance of its planned implementation. So, aside from the allegorical connection of Haman to Amalek, why do we pluck this passage from a parasha that comes much later in our annual Torah-reading cycle to connect it to Purim?  This public Torah reading should be our awakening to a new form of Holocaust denial.  Unlike the Holocaust denial we are so used to confronting, an obscenity that pervades the public with a warped view that the Holocaust never occurred, the Jewish people are afflicting themselves with this new, 21st century form of Holocaust denial. It is our suicidal denial that another Holocaust is possible. This reading is called “Parashat Zachor,” beginning with the word, “Zachor – Remember,” and ending with the admonition, “Do not forget!” By placing Parashat Zachor with Purim, the rabbis intended to teach us: “Remember” that Amalek and Haman attempted to destroy you. “Do not forget!” that this can happen anytime, anywhere.  Even now, no matter when; even here, no matter where.

They are not at a crossroads. We are.

We will recall and re-enact the Exodus to bring peace, and we will celebrate Purim forever to maintain peace. Throughout all of this, neither evil, nor hatred nor our battles against them will consume us. We are nourished not by vengeance, but by the fruits from a Tree of Life that inspires us to strive towards our ultimate vision, not to fight antisemitism, but to bring the eternal relevance and profound joy of Torah to the world. A Torah that provides the courage that we need to preserve life. A Torah that imbues life with meaning.  A Torah whose unique insights travel back with us to our little town where we find that the parties standing at the crossroads of life and death are, in reality, trembling within us this Purim.  It is we who require Jewish wisdom to withstand our powerful and conflicting emotions stemming from the realization that Israelis whom we may not know, but who love us, are embroiled in an Exodus-infused battle for our lives against evil, while we are supposed to celebrate our Purim salvation.

This is what will transpire within us on Purim. We will be in the celebratory wedding party. We will enjoy the right of way, but as we pass before the funeral, we will realize that we traverse the valley of the shadow of death. We will emerge on the other end and go on towards the pinnacle of happiness, though slightly singed by the sadness that settles upon us like embers from a flame.

We will be in the funeral procession, too, watching as the wedding goes by. As it does, we will be altered by their joy, blossoming in such abundance that its aroma will be irresistible.  Even in our disheartened state, we will follow them sustained not by a hope – but by the certainty that life and love are ahead as surely as the wedding party is.

“The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor,” says Esther 8:16. “So may it be for us!” exclaims our siddur when we transition from Shabbat to a new week, every week, entering into another opportunity to partner with God in bringing light and gladness to the world.

About the Author
Robert Lichtman lives in West Orange, NJ and draws upon his long tenure of professional leadership to teach and write about strategic issues and opportunities impacting the Jewish community, and other things. He writes his own bio in the third person.
Related Topics
Related Posts