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Judaism: Why Name a Holiday for a Lottery?

The lottery symbolizes levels of faith.
Published: Saturday, March 15, 2014 8:56 PM


Summary of shiur - wriiten by Channie Koplowitz Stein

As it is with names in general, the name of a holiday reveals its inner essence. On that basis, we can ask why the upcoming holiday is called Purim, since the actual lottery comprises only a small part of the miracle we commemorate. Further, it seems more appropriate to name the holiday Pur/lottery in the singular, rather than Purim/lotteries in the plural. 

Before discussing these questions, it is important to understand the place of lotteries within the Jewish religion and history. Rabbi Chaim Friedland, the Sifsei Chaim, notes that determination by lot was significant in at least two areas.

First, every year as part of the Yom Kippur service, the fate of two goats was determined by lottery, one to be sacrificed on the altar and the other to be sent to Azazel, to a rocky wilderness where it would be thrown off one of the cliffs there. 

Then, when Joshua led the Jews into the Promised Land, the division of the land among the tribes was also carried out through lottery.

How are we to understand the Jewish perspective on drawing lots in contrast to the world view, and most specifically to Haman’s view, on lotteries?

In Judaism, writes Rabbi Friedland, the lottery is a matter of faith, a method through which God can point us in the appropriate direction according to His plan. In contrast, a non believer views the lottery as a matter of chance and coincidence. Amalek, of whom Haman is a descendant, is the paradigmatic advocate of chance, of instilling doubt into the belief that Hashem runs the world.

Rabbi Friedland offers parallel phrases, one from the Torah and two from the Megillah in support of his point. The Torah writes that we must destroy Amalek asher korcha baderech, who happened upon you on your way, by chance. And by attacking you on your way, Amalek instilled doubt into you about God’s protection and sovereignty.

The Megillah uses that same root word, indeed the very same phrase, once in the words of Mordechai and once in the words of Haman to highlight this difference in outlook. Mordechai informs Esther of everything asher korohu, that happened to him with regard to the decree against the Jews, using the Torah words about Amalek to help her understand both the physical and the spiritual danger inherent in the situation. Haman uses the exact same phrase to tell Zeresh his wife of the calamities asher korohu, that happened to him regarding giving honor to his avowed enemy Mordechai.

However, there is a tremendous difference in mindset that lies between the lines of the two speakers. Mordechai understood that the decrees were not just chance happenings, but presented a path to approach Hashem in faith, knowing that His will would be done. Haman, on the other hand, viewed the current reversal of honor between himself and Mordechai as simply a matter of bad luck and unfortunate coincidence of his having been at the wrong place at the wrong time when Achashverosh came across the need to reward Mordechai for saving his life.

In actuality, then, there were two types of lotteries being cast at this time, one was Haman’s lottery and the other was Hashem’s lottery, writes Rabbi Strickoff in Inside Purim. Rabbi Strickoff notes quoting the Bnei Yissachar that in the verse describing the casting of the lottery, the verse states that the lottery was cast before Haman, but does not state who/Who cast the lottery. Therefore, although Haman believed he was in control of the chances, it was really Hakodosh Boruch Hu Who was deciding the outcome of the lottery and Who caused the date to fall in the month of Adar, when Bnei Yisroel had the merit of donating half shekels to the Beit Hamikdosh. 

Why did Hashem decide that the lottery should fall in the month of Adar? Rabbi Aharon of Karlin quoting the Bnei Yissachar gives a Kabalistic reason based on the writings of the Ariz”l. Each month of the year, he writes, is paired with a different part of the human head. For example, Tishrei, the “head” of the year, is matched with the skull, while Marcheshvan is matched with the ears. The month of Adar is matched with the nose and the sense of smell. Even the names of the heroes of Purim reflect this sense, Mordechai being derived from myrrh used in the incense, and Hadassah, Esther’s given name, meaning the sweet smelling myrtle. 

What is the significance of the sense of smell to our redemption? If we reread the narrative of the sin of Adam and Eve, we will note that all the senses were involved in their downfall, touch, sight, taste, and hearing the worlds of the serpent, except for the sense of smell. This sense remained pure and untainted. Hashem therefore caused the lottery to fall in the month untainted by sin and more providential for salvation. 

The message for us in designating the holiday as Purim is that we are always to recognize Hashem’s hidden hand in everything. Although it seemed that Purim was casting the lots, it was actually Hashem determining the outcome in His own lottery for Bnei Yisroel. Hence, two parallel lotteries were being run, and the holiday is named in the plural, Purim.

Along these lines, a second point to consider is that we must remember that since Hashem is the one controlling every situation, even those events which appear to be challenges at the time are being orchestrated for our ultimate benefit. Although the events of the lotteries were traumatic, causing anguish among our people, they were the instrument through which we again came closer to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and now willingly re-accepted the Torah with great joy. Therefore, when our Sages say we should not be able to distinguish the difference between “blessed is Mordechai” and “cursed is Haman”, what they are implying is that we should acknowledge that we do not understand Hashem’s ways, and what may appear to be difficult and challenging to us now, may be Hashem’s way of granting us great blessings in the future. 

In a similar vein, Rabbi Roberts notes in Timeless Seasons quotes the Gaon of Vilna, that when Hashem said, “Anochi aster astear paneye, - I will surely hide My face,” He was reminding us that even in those times, it is Anochi, I, Hashem Who is there, albeit I am hidden. On Purim, we are celebrating not only our salvation, but also the challenge that brought us closer to Hashem.

This idea is the true essence of the simcha, the joy of Purim, writes Rabbi Gedaliah Eisman. What greater joy can there be to understand that Hashem is always with us, especially in the times of our greatest trials. Therefore, this day is a day when Hashem is especially receptive to our prayers. 

Rabbi Goldwicht, in Asufat Maarachot, brings a psychological perspective to our discussion. He writes that we most appreciate something when we have put our own effort and invested ourselves into acquiring it. That’s the reason for the enhanced simcha on Purim and a reason to call the holiday Purim. It was the pain of our possible annihilation because of the lottery that drew us toward repentance, teshuvah, and eventually led us back to the Torah, and toward acquiring the world to come, olam haba, and eventually our return to Eretz Yisroel. Because the lottery was the catalyst and the medium for our teshuvah, the holiday was called Purim. 

Building on the comment of Be’er Yosef, that the entire Megilla has to be understood for its hidden implications, we can perhaps suggest that we call the holiday Purim to remind us of Yom Hakipurim, Rabbi Strickoff points out some of the similarities between the two holidays. Both holidays, as mentioned earlier, involved the casting of lots, on both holidays we fast and feast, although in reverse order, and both holidays are set aside for atonement. In this regard, however, Purim is even greater, for, as Rabbi Strickoff points out, Yom Kippur atones only for those who do teshuvah, while Purim atones for all sinners.

How is this so? Hashem’s clemency is a reflection of our clemency on Purim. All year round, when we are approached to give someone charity, we are permitted to check the recipient’s credentials first, but on Purim, we are obligated to extend our hand to all who request our help and not permitted to inquire as to his worthiness. Similarly, on Purim, Hashem does not question our sincerity in doing teshuvah but charitably forgives us our sins. Along a similar line, The Sefas Emes notes that just as Esther approached the king without the proper protocol, so too, may we approach the King on Purim outside the proper protocol and ask Hashem to respond to us. 

The Netivot Shalom, the Slonimer Rebbe, also posits that Purim is greater than Yom Kippur in many respects. First, our teshuvah on Yom Kippur is repentance out of fear, while our teshuvah and return to Hashem on Purim is out of love. Because of this difference, the symbolic wall separating us from Hakodosh Boruch Hu is smashed on Purim with one blow, while the wall on Yom Kippur is taken apart slowly, brick by brick. As is written in Mipi Seforim Vesofrim, we are awakened to Hashem’s love as we begin preparation for Pesach thirty days before that holiday of redemption. 

Purim must be understood by reading between the lines and recognizing what is covertly hidden within the text. The Megillah narrative parallels the invisible hand of God in our lives, and it is up to us to seek Him out and reveal Him. But He is so close to us on this day, continues the Netivot Shalom, that we are afraid His presence will be apparent, and the Satan will try to steal this precious “crown” from our midst. To confuse the Satan, we engage in revelry and drinking, to hide the seriousness of this day.

But, cautions the Netivot Shalom, don’t become so involved in the revelry that you forget the sanctity of the day and lose the opportunity to approach Hashem and speak to Him from your heart. The gate is open. Pray fervently, recite Tehillim for those in need. So, while you enjoy the physical aspects of the day, remember to also especially enjoy the spiritual aspects of the day. Demonstrate your love for others through mishloach manot and gifts to the poor, and your heart will open up to greater love for Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

Megillat Esther means to reveal that which is hidden. Hashem’s love for us is often hidden. May we merit to feel His love revealed to us, pardon for our sins, and a new redemption.