The duality of Purim

Purim destroyed the Jews' confidence that they would ever be treated as any other people.  They recognized that being the people of God occasioned significant consequences

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Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz,

Rabbi Schertz
Rabbi Schertz
INN: J. Fogel

The importance given to Purim by Rabbinic tradition seems disproportionate to its observance as a minor holiday would merit.  Although the Book of Esther is placed in the Tanach in the section of Ketuvim, the Rabbis assign it a significance comparable to the Torah itself. 

All the books of the prophets and all the Ketuvim are destined to become nullified at the time of the Messiah, with the exception of the Scroll of Esther.  It will continue to exist as will the five books of the Torah, and as the Oral Torah which will never be nullified.  Even though memory of the earlier sufferings of the Jewish people will become null . . . the days of Purim will never become null for it says, “these days of Purim will not pass away from the Jews and memory of them will not cease from their progeny.” ( Megillat Esther, 9:28, Mishneh Torah , Laws of Megilla, 2:18)

The Raavad explains that the text of the Prophets and Ketuvim will not really cease to exist, but rather, will no longer be read publically, but Megillat Esther will always be read publically. (Raavad ad Locum.)

Both the Rambam and the Raavad do not explain what is special about Purim.  A key to our understanding is the statement in the Rambam that the earlier sufferings of the Jewish people will be forgotten.  This indicates that for the Rambam, the centrality of Purim is focused on the disaster which almost occurred, rather than on the redemption or celebration through which we celebrate Purim today.  Purim should be a time of reflection on the near tragedy and not one of drunken celebration of the redemption.  This concept of reflection seems to go against our behavior today which emphasizes the celebration. 

To fully understand these two aspects of Purim, the reflective and celebratory, we must turn to the Talmud for guidance.

“And they stood at the foot (Tachtit) of the mountain,” Exodus, 19:17, Rav Avdimi son of Chama son of Chasa said, this comes to teach that God overturned the mountain upon them like a bowl,(Giggit) (the term “Tachtit” can be translated as either at the foot or beneath the mountain) and said to them, “if you accept the Torah, then all is well.  If not, this will become your burial place.”  Rav Acha bar Yaakov said, this is a major announcement about the Torah. (i.e. that if God wished to bring the Jews to justice for non-compliance with the Torah which they had accepted upon themselves, they have a valid response that it was accepted under duress. (Rashi Ad Locum)).  Rava said, nevertheless, the generation accepted it (Tosphot – “Later on” they accepted it) in the time of Achashverosh, for the text states, “the Jews fulfilled and accepted.”  (Esther 9:27), They fulfilled now, what they had accepted earlier (at the time of Sinai).  (Shabbat, 89:a).

Rashi explains, that the basis for their fulfilling the commandments now (at the time of Purim) was their love of the miracle which was performed for them. (Rashi Ad Locum.)

There are several difficulties which are implied by this passage.  First, if the Talmud is correct that the Torah was only conditionally accepted by the Jews from the time of the Exodus until the middle of the Babylonian Exile, then for many hundreds of years the Jews did not live under the aegis of the Torah and were not obliged to observe its commandments.  If that is true, then in what way were they considered to be Jews?  It was the acceptance of the Torah at Sinai as is described in the Torah that converted them to Judaism.   If that acceptance is questionable, then the conversion is equally questionable.  At the very least, a new process of conversion would be necessary at the time of Achashverosh.  Purim would then truly be the beginning of Jewish history. There would be no significance to the acceptance at Sinai. 

Second, we are told by Rashi that the Jews voluntarily fulfilled the Torah during the time of Achashverosh because of the miracle which God had wrought for them at that time.  Why were they more enamored of a miracle which was hidden and based upon a series of coincidences rather than the many open and observable miracles which occurred both during the Exodus and at the Revelation at Sinai?  Were not the ten plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea miraculous enough?  Could there be a greater miracle than God’s revelation?

Finally, are not all aspects of Torah observance accompanied by a sense of duress? Noncompliance with Torah observance results in severe punishment.  This is most evident on the two occasions in the Torah known as the Tochacha or extreme exhortation when God threatens Israel for non-compliance.  (Vayikra chapt. 26 and Devarim Chapt. 28.)  It could well be argued that had the Jews known about the extent of the punishment that would be in store for them, they would never have accepted the Torah.  It is a supreme irony that both the Torah and Rabbinic tradition strongly encourage the concept of having fear of God.  Yet, that very fear can be used as an argument to justify not being bound to accept the Torah.  

In truth, even Purim itself was originally rooted in a sense of great fear and duress.  The Jews were under the threat of total annihilation and extermination.  Even gratitude to God for preventing this calamity and their fulfillment of His commandments could not totally erase the fear which they experienced. They were still haunted by the fear that such a threat could occur again.

In light of these questions, we should reexamine the process of Jewish history.  As soon as the Exodus occurred, the Jewish people were involved in an inextricable relationship with God.  They were only given one choice. They either accepted that relationship and its implications or ceased to exist as a people.  That choice was clearly delineated at Sinai with the image of the mountain looming over their heads.  The key to this relationship was God’s covenant with them which was called the Torah.  By definition, for Jews, life without the Torah meant death. They understood this and thus accepted the Torah.  That acceptance was valid to establish them as Jews, and was marked by both privilege and responsibility.  It was taken for granted as a normal occurrence in Jewish life, despite the various idolatrous interruptions which are recounted in the Tanach.     

A radical change occurred during Purim.  The Jews were ensconced within the Persian Empire as just another nation within 127 other nations.  Suddenly without warning, they were selected for extermination.  That event destroyed their confidence that they would ever be treated as any other people.  They recognized that being the people of God occasioned significant consequences.  The miracle of redemption which occurred on Purim demonstrated to them that they were different, but also very special.  They now accepted that differentiation not as merely a natural phenomenon, but with a sense of great love.  It was that element of love which made fulfillment of the Torah at the time of Purim special and unique.  That love took precedence over any fear or duress.  They understood that being a Jew is ultimately a privilege no matter what consequences it occasions. It is that mindset which has been with the people of Israel and allowed them to survive until the present time. 

Thus, Purim expresses both the concept expressed by the Rambam and that of Rashi.  According to the Rambam, Jews should never forget the threat which was posed at the time of Achashverosh and which may come into being again.   To the Rambam, Purim is a time of great reflection.  To Rashi, however, Jews must emphasize the special relationship with God which caused the people of Israel to love the miracle of Purim and the God who wrought it.  Purim thus becomes an act of celebration.  It is the combination of these dual aspects that demonstrate the true significance of Purim.