Chagim - Jewish Holidays

The Real Meaning of Purim

March 8, 2009

Children celebrating Purim in Jerusalem

Most of us read the Megillah year after year without realizing the sublime message embedded deep inside of it. It isn’t just a story of an evil king and a poor nation saved by a beautiful new queen and wise Jewish man. It is a story that defines our existence as Jews to this very day.

I invite you to join me in examining the Megillah in a new light, through the lens of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s zt”l writings:

The students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai asked him: “Why did the Jews of that generation [of Purim] deserve to be destroyed?” to which he answered “because they enjoyed from the feast of that evil man [King Achashverosh]”.

Yet the question remains for us – what was it that the Jews did that justified Hashem punishing the entire generation with destruction? Could it be that they possibly took part of a feast that was not Kosher?

Not only is that hard to believe, for the very simple reason that eating non-Kosher food is not a sin that one must give up his life for. Furthermore, our Rabbis teach us that there was Kosher food, as well as wine, at the feast, to accommodate the needs of the Jewish guests.

The Rif, Rabbi Yehuda Alfasi, was also bothered by this very same question. He answers by saying that the Jews were guilty of a very different sin. The whole feast of King Achashverosh was in celebration that the seventy-year deadline of the Jews exile had passed, without them being redeemed (which he miscalculated). Achashverosh decided to celebrate by using the vessels of the Holy Temple, as our Rabbis teach, and the Jews sin was that they partook from the feast by using vessels of the Temple, thus showing their joy at the destruction of the Temple!

Yet this answer is also hard to accept, for even if we assume that this joy was sinful enough to warrant their destruction, what about the children who did not partake from the feast? What was the reason that they deserved to be destroyed?

To explain the answer, we first must know some background information.

The Midrash states: “The Jewish people are like a small sheep standing in between seventy wolves, and great is the Shepherd [Hashem] who saves and protects her.”

This Midrash is teaching is a fundamental point in the existence of the Jewish people. Our natural state is one of non-existence. We live a life where generation after generation, exile after exile, different nations have stood up to destroy us – yet we have always prevailed. We have survived, not because it makes sense that we should, rather because “great is the Shepherd who saves and protects” us.

In every generation, when our enemies rise up against us, we lift our eyes to Heaven and affirm our belief in Hashem. In this merit, Hashem lifts us out of our natural state into a supernatural state – one of survival and not destruction.

The same happened in the story of Purim. Hashem did not punish the Jews. The whole story of Purim was not a punishment, and therefore, we cannot find a purely Halachic justification for the near destruction of the world’s entire Jewish population. Rather, Hashem treated us “measure for measure”. The Jews had to go to the feast of Achashverosh, “for the law of the land is the law” and he had commanded them to.

Their failure was in their lack of belief in Hashem, by not only partaking from the feast, but from enjoying it as well. Hashem decided that if they felt that Achashverosh was their king, and not Him, then he would let it be so. He stepped back, so to speak, and let the Jews feel a taste of what it was like to live in their purely natural state – without His Divine Providence.

This is the reason why the miracle of Purim had to take place in the guise of a “natural” event as well. Hashem’s Name is not explicitly mentioned in the Megillah because from this point on, He had decided to remain hidden from the eyes of the Jewish people, saving them only from “behind the scenes”. It is Queen Esther’s very name which we see this from – Esther is from the word “haster”, or to hide. Hashem had hidden His revealed Divine Providence and replaced it with a “natural” form.

This now beautifully explains Esther’s actions in the story of Purim. We see that before she approached the King, she bathed herself “for six months in Mor oil, and for six months in spices” to make herself appealing to him. Yet, three days before she went into his royal chambers she called for a fast among the Jews of the world – “and I and my maidservants will fast as well”.

Our Sages have already taught us: “It is in the merit of righteous women that the redemption comes”. Esther was our redeemer, our savior – we must understand the extremely calculated measures she took to ensure the survival of her Nation.

What was Esther thinking? If she felt that her chance of survival was dependent on her, then it makes sense that she bathed and prepared herself. Yet, why did she fast? A fast weakens a person and makes them lose some of their beauty – why would she ruin all that she had prepared?

On the other hand, if she felt that it was in the hands of Hashem and she must fast to arouse His mercy upon her – why did she spend a whole year bathing and readying herself to enter the King’s presence?

This was exactly what Esther was teaching the Jewish people. She saw that our mistake was that we gave up on Hashem’s Providence, on His ability to redeem us. She wanted to teach the Jewish people of Achashverosh’s kingdom and the Jewish people today an eternal lesson. We must not rely simply on miracles, on the “swift hand of Hashem”. We must also put in our own efforts, whether in regards to nation destruction, or even in regards to things such as our livelihood and success.

Yet at the end of the day, after we have put in our effort to create a vessel for Hashem’s help, we must step back and let Him do the rest. “And I and my maidservants will fast as well”. She knew that the fasting would weaken her physical state, but she had to survive, she had to triumph and show the Jewish people that their survival rested solely in the hands of their Hashem.

We face today a scary and troublesome world. Here in Israel, I sit between seven nations who have showed us time after time that all they want is our destruction. In America, we face an economy that is crashing faster that we have ever seen it before. But we are not without hope. We must put in our effort, do what we can, and try to help the situation get better.

Yet, after we have done all that, we must throw in our towels, lean back in our chairs, and let Hashem do the rest. Show him that we believe in Him – and then He will act with us measure for measure – and make this the happiest Purim since the days of Shushan!

Chag Same’ach and Happy Purim from Jerusalem!

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