Jonathan Muskat

The Secular Holiness of Purim

Beyond the masks and the parties and the revelry, the holiday of Purim has a unique message about God’s love for us. We can uncover this message by addressing three questions.

First, the gemara in Masechet Megilla 11a describes that various Talmudic Sages would begin their talk about the Purim story by citing a pasuk from Tanach to highlight an underlying theme from the story. The gemara tells us that the great talmudic sage, Shmuel, would open his discussion about the megilla with the following verse “lo m’astim v’lo g’altim l’chalotam.” This phrase is taken from the tochacha, the rebuke, in Sefer Vayikra when God says that when we are in the land of our enemies, He will neither reject us nor despise us to completely destroy us to annul His covenant with us. Is the central theme of the story of Purim that God was thinking about rejecting us? Isn’t the story about an evil man named Haman who tried to destroy us and God came to our rescue? What is the relevance of the tochacha to the Purim story?

Second, after the Jews defeated their enemies, the day of Purim was designated as a day of “simcha u-mishteh v’yom tov u-mishloach manot ish l’rai-aihu” (Esther 9:19) – a day of happiness and drinking parties and a holiday and a day of sending gifts to each other. A few pesukim later, the Jews accepted upon themselves to make these days into days of “mishteh v’simcha u-mishloach manot ish l’rai-aihu u-matanot la-eveyonim.” (Ibid., 9:22) The order of simcha and mishteh is reversed, Purim is no longer a day of Yom Tov and there is an additional requirement for matanot la-evyonim. How can we account for all of these changes to the nature of this holiday?

Finally, how do we understand the Zohar’s comment that Yom Kippur is like Purim?  (Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 20 and 21) These two holidays couldn’t be more dissimilar!

We can address all three questions by appreciating that the story of Purim is more than just a story when we were at the brink of destruction and then we were saved by God. Purim was a time when we were challenged theologically by Haman the antisemite. Haman told the king (Esther 3:8) that we are “mefuzar u-m’forad bein ha-amim,” – that we are scattered and separated among the nations, that we have no roots and no home. He claimed that “v’dateihem shonot mi-kol am” – that we have strange customs, and “v’et datei hamelech ain osim” – we don’t keep the king’s laws. Haman concluded that “v’lamelech ain shoveh l’hanicham” – that it’s not worth it to keep us alive.

Haman argued that we have been rejected by God. We are in exile, our Temple has been destroyed, God has left us, and God has rejected us. As such, either we should assimilate and disappear that way, or we should disappear by force. That is why the pasuk that Shmuel cited is so relevant in the context of the story of Purim. Even when it looks bleak, even when we are in exile, and even when it may seem like God has rejected us, we must remember that that’s not the case. Salvation can be just around the corner. In these circumstances we must tell the Haman’s of our day that they are wrong even when it seems that they are right. God loves us even while we are in exile.

My Rebbe, Rav Rosensweig, similarly suggested that this is what’s behind the change in the celebration of Purim. Initially, the plan was to make Purim a Yom Tov and the image of Yom Tov is a day when work is prohibited. Initially, the plan was to make Purim a day of simcha and mishteh, of happiness first and then mishteh, a day when the mishteh, or the drinking feast, emanates from the simcha of having an emotional connection with God through the observance of a Yom Tov. Ultimately, though, Purim was not accepted this way. Purim did not become a Yom Tov. The mishteh preceded the simcha and therefore, the drinking feasts of Purim did not become an outgrowth of the simcha of the day. All of these features point to one theme, which is the more secular nature of Purim. Purim could have become a Yom Tov, but that did not happen. The focus of the day is the mishteh as a goal unto itself and not as an outgrowth of simcha. The reason is that that Purim celebrates God’s love for us even when we are not in such a spiritual state, even when we are not acting in a Yom Tov-type fashion and even when we are in exile. We were not rejected by God just because we lived in exile in Persia and not in Eretz Yisrael.

The Rambam (Hilchot Megilla 2:17) has an interesting formulation regarding the reason for the mitzva of matanot la-evyonim. The Rambam writes that whoever brings happiness to the hearts of evyonim resembles God, as it were. He cites a verse in Yeshayahu, describing God as someone “l’hachayot ruach shefalim u-l’hachayot lev nidkaim,” Who revives the spirit of the lowly and revives those with broken hearts. The goal of Purim is to take care of the evyon. An evyon is not specifically a poor person, but it is a person who is distraught, who lacks everything, and who requires sympathy and empathy. When we give gifts to the evyon, then we imitate God who raises the spirits of those who are despondent, a God who doesn’t desert the Jewish people when they are in exile. We imitate God of the tochacha when He said, “lo m’astim v’lo g’altim l’hafer briti itam,” that He will not forsake us to annul His covenant with us.

Perhaps this is what the Zohar means when it compares Yom Kippur to Purim. On Yom Kippur, we are like angels, wearing white, fasting and standing in prayer the whole day. On Purim, we are on the other side of the spectrum, being childlike, not being fully in control of our faculties, and engaging in physical pleasures to the extreme. However, God’s love for us when we are Purim Jews is the same as God’s love for us when we are Yom Kippur Jews. May we all internalize this important message during the highs and lows of our journey through life.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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