Dear Ask-The-Rabbi Rabbi,
I’ve been doing this Purim thing for a long time, but it still makes no sense. Just because “they tried to kill us, but G‑d made a miracle” two and a half thousand years ago, we have to go berserk every year?
Have you ever read that excerpt from the diary of Samuel Pepys (a 17th-century gentleman) where he makes his first visit to a synagogue—and leaves in horror at the frolicking and utter chaos (it happened to be Simchat Torah)? Can you imagine the daze on the man’s face watching us enter our place of worship carrying noisemakers of all varieties and functions, dressed as clowns, princesses, Big Bird with a kippah and Obi-Wan Kenobi with tzitzit—to make noise while an ancient scroll is being read? Last Purim one guy came with a tuba, and another with a live goat!
Okay, it’s a cultural paradigm thing. Maybe Pepys is the one who is weird. The real problem is this: What’s so special about the Purim story anyway that makes the day deserve all this madness? How many other times did they try to annihilate us? I can think of at least three in my short lifetime. And it’s not like they’ve given up.
On Chanukah, we don’t go berserk.On Chanukah, we don’t go berserk. On Passover, we don’t go berserk. But on Purim, things go totally wild. On Passover, we don’t go berserk. But on Purim, in a religious community, things go totally wild. What’s up with this day?
—Adel O. Yadah
Yes, it’s a much bigger question than you imagine. Everything we do on Purim is super-exaggerated. It’s so strange—Chanukah, you get eight days to light a few candles; but Purim gives you just one day to:
- Hear the whole Megillah twice—once at night and once in the day—without missing a word, or you’ll have to hear it again.
- Send two substantial gifts of food to be eaten that day to at least one friend (but we usually send to at least a hundred, because they’re all sending to us).
- Give gifts of food or cash to at least two needy people (or families), so that they can also celebrate on that day.
- Make a daytime wine-fest on Purim and celebrate until—in the words of the Talmud—“you don’t know the difference between ‘blessed is Mordechai’ and ‘cursed is Haman.’”
Think a little and you’ll see a common thread: All of these are mitzvahs we do all year long—but on Purim they’re way out of proportion.
- We often read the Torah—but not at night; rarely with all men, women and children there; and certainly without the audience-participation noisemaking.
- We often invite guests for Shabbat and Yom Tov—but when else do we send them food to eat in their own homes?
- We always have to give to the needy—but when else do we seek them out, as in “I need you right now so I can do this mitzvah!”?
- On other holidays, we make a joyous feast—but not this kind of completely different sort of feast, blown out of orbit, so as to carry you to a whole new galaxy.
You really have to have been a religious community to conceive of the madness of this day. A hundred hands are out asking for money—because the rule is that on Purim, if they put out their hand, you give. There are always those precious souls who have a list of needy families in hand and stand at the synagogue or go door to door collecting thousands of dollars to help needy families pay the rent or put food in their fridges. The side streets are gridlocked, because everyone is out delivering their packages of food and treats to all their friends and neighbors—as well as to complete strangers. Kids and adults are walking the streets in some of the craziest costumes imaginable. Parties are everywhere, so that the entire neighborhood becomes one big party.
So why is this celebration more crazy than any other celebration?
Because, in short, the joy of Purim is not about the downfall of Haman or the rescue of the Jewish people.Purim is not about Esther or Mordechai, Shushan or ancient Persia. It’s about us. It’s not about Esther or Mordechai, Shushan or ancient Persia. It’s not about the past at all. Those events happened, and they play a vital element in the celebration. But they aren’t its soul; they aren’t its engine.
Purim is about us. All Jewish holidays are manifestations of deep imprints within the Jewish psyche, each with its particular time of year to blossom. What blossoms on Purim? That we grew up and took ownership of our Jewishness. That’s why one early halachic authority puts it like this: “Purim is greater than the day on which the Torah was given.” It’s the day that we took the Torah. And when you take ownership, everything becomes different.
Prisoners of Love
To explain that, we have to go back to Sinai, where the Torah was given. The Exodus and the Mount Sinai event have a lot in common with the knight in shining armor who saves the fair maiden from a wicked dragon. He valiantly slays the dragon, carries the fair maiden off on his swift horse, gives her drink, feeds her, provides fine clothes and jewelry, whispers kind and soothing words into her ear, and then eventually proposes marriage.
What’s she going to say?
With that in mind, let’s visit an ancient yeshivah somewhere in Mesopotamia and listen in on a discussion recorded in the Talmud:
Rabbi Avdimi, son of Chama, son of Mechasya, is providing the interpretation he had received of the giving of the Torah. When he got to the verse “They stood at the foot of the mountain,” he notes that the words don’t really say that. The literal translation is that the people were standing beneath the mountain. How could they be standing beneath a mountain? His interpretation:
You see, the Jewish people were standing at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Then G‑d picked up the mountain and held it like a barrel over their heads. He told them, “If you accept the Torah, good. If not, here’s your burial plot.”
Rabbi Acha, son of Yaakov is listening. He’s an elderly sage, but with a mind still sharp as a razor. He pipes in: “If so, the entire deal is invalid.”
“What?” the students exclaim. “You’re saying the whole covenant at Sinai, all these mitzvahs we do, all this Torah we learn—there’s really no deal?”
“If someone holds a sword over your neck and says, ‘Sign this deal!’ is it a valid deal?”
“Well, there would have to be witnesses that were was coercion, and . . .”
“Witnesses!?” Rabbi Acha retorts. “There were 600,000 witnesses standing right there! And the rabbi just told you that the Torah itself admits they were all coerced! So the Torah itself is saying the entire event was null and void, nonbinding, invalid and unenforceable from the get-go.”
Knowing yeshivahs, it was a heated debate for hours, if not days, weeks, months or years. Eventually someone came up with an ingenious resolution—which we’ll get to.
But first we have to deal with this mountain thing. Why on earth would G‑d hold a mountain over our heads? We, the children of Israel, whom He called “My child, My firstborn.” Is that the way you treat your child? Especially after we had already declared our commitment, saying, “Whatever G‑d says, we will do and we will obey!”
So, this mountain thing—everyone has an explanation. First, wipe out of your mind that there was an actual mountain over their heads. That doesn’t work. It’s figurative, like much of Midrash. But it nevertheless must have been a real form of coercion.
Which is what the knight in shining armor analogy is all about. The mountain was an embrace of overwhelming love.That’s how Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, explains the mountain: The mountain is G‑d’s great display of love for His people.
Now you get why Rabbi Avdimi described the mountain over their heads “like a barrel.” It was a kind of embrace from all directions—just as Torah embraces every limb of our body and every action of our day.
But it was an embrace too great to resist. Such love could have only one of two outcomes: Either invest it into this Torah, or allow your soul to take wing like a bird, to forever escape your body and reunite with its Beloved above.
So, did they accept the Torah of their own volition? Like the fair maiden, certainly not. They had no other choice.
Back at the yeshivah, in walks this genius student who everyone just calls “Rava,” and answers the question:
Sure, everyone knows that. Nevertheless, in the days of Achashverosh, they revisited the whole thing and accepted it. It even hints to that in the Megillah. It says, “The Jews affirmed and they accepted.” It means they affirmed that which they had already accepted—at Mount Sinai.
Now let’s get this straight. When they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and directly heard G‑d speaking to them, it wasn’t a real acceptance. Okay, we understand why. They were overwhelmed by the romance of it all. But what made it a complete acceptance “in the days of Achashverosh,” when there was no mountain, no booming voice, no multisensory experience?
Because what spoke In a shuddering void, all that was left was the Jew. And the Jew had to decide, “Am I still a Jew?”then was something yet more powerful: a shuddering silence and a chilling void. All that was left was the Jew. And the Jew had to decide, “Am I still a Jew?”
Jews had been exiled from their homeland for a long time. The prophet Jeremiah had told them the exile would last 70 years—but that was over 70 years ago. The prophet Ezekiel had described the new Temple they would build in Jerusalem. King Cyrus had even authorized its rebuilding—only to shut the project down shortly after. It’s one thing to travel through a dark tunnel waiting for the light; it’s another to see that light begin to shine, only to have an iron wall slam down upon it.
And now the king’s prime minister, a demagogue to the masses, a wealthy and powerful megalomaniac, proposes a plan to annihilate all Jews on a single day—and the king agrees and drinks to the occasion.
The knight in shining armor, by all appearances, had long forsaken the lady he had claimed as his wife. He was nowhere to be found.
Put yourself there. Like most Jews, you’ve made your way into society. You speak the language; own a nice date orchard along with an international spice shop; make business with Persians, Medes, Babylonians, and all the many ethnic groups that make up the vast trade empire of the time—and you’re all buddies.
Now, suddenly, those business friends hate your guts. You, your family, your entire people. Just because you are a Jew. Within a matter of weeks, the atmosphere in the market has changed. “You Jewish? I don’t buy from Jews.” “Hey, Haman is planning to kill all you guys. Why don’t we take care of it right now—heh, heh, heh.” And no, those aren’t empty threats—you’re hearing more reports every day.
Yes, it sounds familiar. It’s called Jewish history. But get this straight: This had never happened before.
Never since the birth of this nation were Jews ever put through the crucible of face-to-face antisemitism in a foreign land.
So if someone stops you on the street and asks, “Hey, are you Jewish?” what would be the sensible response? Simple: “No, I’m a pedestrian.” And just keep walking.
They’ll say you dress Jewish. So you’ll dress Persian. They’ll say you speak with a Jewish accent. You can fix that too. They’ll say you hang out with Jews and go to their prayer services, you have no icons on your front lawn, you don’t come to the big fire-worship ceremonies. Look, if it’s going to save the lives of you and your family . . .
But that’s not what happened. For some inexplicable reason, Jews remained Jews—openly and proudly. They suffered threats, harassment, violence, boycotts, divestments and estrangement for an entire year—but they remained Jews. They gathered publicly outdoors to pray, they refused to bow to Haman, and they taught their kids to do the same. They said, “We are Jews. Maybe G‑d has abandoned us, but we have not abandoned Him.”
Jumping back now to our contemporary world: A Jew walking on Fifth Avenue gets stopped by a Chabad yeshivah boy and is asked to wrap tefillin. He hasn’t done such a thing since his bar mitzvah—if then. He thinks it’s nuts, he doesn’t believe in G‑d, the closest associations in his mind to Judaism are the Holocaust and “Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.” So he says yes, wraps the tefillin and says “Hear O Israel . . .”
There is no why. He’s a Jew. It’s not something duct-taped on to him, certainly not inculcated into him. Not something he’s received, not something he owns. Nothing can rip it out of him and nothing can rip him from it. It is him.
Otherwise, explain why today, after a Holocaust has provided us every excuse to abandon any covenant with G‑d, as the world offers every opportunity imaginable if you’ll just “be like us,” while visibly Jewish students are harassed by BDS inanities and ranting professors—nevertheless I’m surrounded by young, intelligent, creative Jews embracing their Jewishness with all the responsibilities and restrictions that come along with it. Explain to me why there is a single practicing Jew left in this world.
At Sinai,At Sinai, love poured down from above. In Shushan, it rose from below. And so too today. writes Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the love poured down from above. In Shushan, it rose from below. And so too today.
That’s the core essence of the Jew that awakened and matured for an entire year in ancient Persia until it blossomed on Purim. Ever since, it blossoms again every year at the same time. And that’s why we go berserk.
We’re not being silly on Purim. It’s not an International Airhead Convention or competition for “Goon of the Year.” It’s just that the berserkness, that’s the only way that core essence can express itself.
It’s a kind of breaking out of your box, out of any box, just like the experience of standing at Mount Sinai, where our souls flew out of us each time we heard the Divine voice. Like the experience of a prophet who loses all sense of body and self at the time of prophecy. Like authentic chassidim who, in the ecstasy of their prayer, as their souls are absorbed within the Infinite Light, have long lost any sense of the world about them. So too, every Jew is given the capacity to go divinely berserk on Purim.
We gotta make this practical. And there’s a very practical application provided by the great codifier of Jewish Law, Maimonides. After describing how a Jew is to feast on Purim day “beyond knowing,” send food packages to friends and distribute gifts to the poor, he then sets the priorities straight:
Better to increase your gifts to the poor than to enhance your Purim feast or food packages to your friends. For there is no greater and more beautiful happiness than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the strangers.
When you bring happiness to the hearts of these dejected souls, you are like the Shechinah (Divine Presence), about whom it is said, “To revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive those with broken hearts.”
From here we get a glimpse of Maimonides’ concept of happiness on this day. Because when he tells us how to celebrate every other Jewish festival, he doesn’t talk this way. Even when he tells us the laws of charity, he never tells us that we are emulating the Divine Presence.
But here, he is telling us that Purim is a whole different category of happiness—a Divine happiness. As sensitive as you may be, a created being will always feel his or her own self more than that of an other, certainly of a distant stranger. But here, your ultimate happiness is in the glee of this widowed mother who can now go shopping for her kids, this smile of the homeless kid on the street who is now sitting at your Purim table, or the weird fellow in the apartment next door who never receives a visit from anybody and now just can’t stop shaking your hand.
You have become the Divine Presence.
When the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory, would explain all this, he would make his point very clear and practical: On Purim, go visit the dejected. Where are they? In the prisons, the hospitals and the nursing homes. Make them happy. Make them smile. Forget about where you would rather be. Bring joy to the most dismal places, hope to the most downhearted, light to the blackest darkness. Let their joy be your joy.
And then, the core of your own soul will break through like the dawn.