There is something strange in the name of Purim. Firstly, it is a Persian word (meaning “lots”—the lots that Haman cast in deciding when to issue his decree against the Jews). And secondly, its reference is to the danger with which the Jews were confronted, rather than to their ultimate deliverance. Added to this, the Megillah, the Book of Esther, is unique amongst the books of the Torah in not containing a single mention of the name of G‑d. All this suggests that Purim is a symbol of “concealment,” of the “hiding” of the face of G‑d. The name “Esther” itself is related to the Hebrew word for “I will hide,” which occurs in Devarim where G‑d says “I will surely hide My face.” And yet Purim celebrates a miracle, a revelation of Divine providence. The Rebbe, in resolving this apparent contradiction, investigates the idea of a miracle, and of whether it is a natural or a supernatural event. The underlying question is one which the modern mind finds particularly urgent: Does the disappearance of supernatural revelations mean that the age of miracles is past?

1. Purim and the Present

“If one reads the Megillah in the wrong order (literally, ‘backwards’), he has not fulfilled his obligation.”1

The Baal Shem Tov2 explained that this refers to a person who reads the Megillah believing that the story it tells occurred only in the past (that is, he reads it “backwards,” as a retrospective account) and that the miracle of Purim does not endure into the present. Such a man has not fulfilled his obligation, for the purpose of the reading of the Megillah is to learn how a Jew should behave in the present.

If this applies to every verse of the Megillah, and more so to the Megillah as a whole, it applies still more to the verse which explains how the festival of Purim acquired its name. For the name of a thing is a sign of its essential character.3 And to read the verse which tells us of the inner meaning of Purim as if it applies only to the past is to miss its eternal message to Israel and the Jew.

2. The Name of Purim

The verse4 says: “Therefore they called the days Purim (‘lots’) because of the lot” which Haman had cast to determine when the Jews should be destroyed.

The word “pur” is not Hebrew but Persian.5 Thus the Torah, when mentioning it, translates into Hebrew: “Pur: That is, the goral (lot).”6 Why, then, is the festival called by a Persian name, Purim, instead of the Hebrew equivalent, goralot? All other festivals, including Chanukah (the other one to be instituted in Rabbinic times) have Hebrew names.

There is another enigma. The other festivals commemorating miracles of deliverance recall the fact by their names. Purim, instead of being named after the deliverance from Haman’s decree, is, on the contrary, named after the danger itself: The lottery which Haman cast to fix the day when he intended “to consume and destroy them,” G‑d forbid.

3. The Name of G‑d

Another feature is peculiar to the Megillah, the Book of Esther: The name of G‑d is not once mentioned. All other books of the Torah contain G‑d’s name many times. This remarkable omission is suggestive of an extreme concealment. Every Jew, even when he is speaking about secular concerns, should have “the name of G‑d familiar on his lips.” Certainly when he writes, even on secular business, it is a universal custom (and Jewish custom is part of Torah) to preface a letter with the words (‘With G‑d’s blessing,” “With the help of Heaven,” or the like. It is striking, then, that one of the books of the Torah should be entirely devoid of G‑d’s name!

4. Concealment and Revelation

As said above, the inner meaning of a thing is signified by its name. And the name Esther suggests the concealment that we find in the Megillah. “Esther” comes from the same root as “hester,” or hiding. Indeed it alludes to a double-hiding, as we find in the Talmud:7 “Where is the name Esther indicated in the Torah? (In the verse)8 ‘I will hide, yes hide My face.’” But revelation is also implicit in the name Megillat Esther, for Megillah means “revelation.”9

Just as, in the title of the book, we can distinguish two opposites, concealment (Esther) and revelation (Megillah), so too in the festival itself. On the one hand, the idea of concealment lies behind the name of Purim, a Persian word, and one connected with the decree against the Jews. On the other hand, it is a festival which in its celebration and rejoicing surpasses all others, going so far as to enjoin drinking “until one does not know the difference between ‘Blessed be Mordechai’ and ‘Cursed be Haman’”10—a celebration without limit.

5. The Actions of Esther and Mordechai

To understand these apparent contradictions, we must first consider one feature of the story of Esther.

At the time of Haman’s decree, the Jewish people had highly honored representatives in the royal court. Mordechai used to “sit at the gate of the King,’’11 and, our Sages tell us, was consulted by Ahasuerus for advice.12 Besides, he had saved the King’s life.13 Esther was queen and “found grace and favor in his sight,’’14 On the face of it, when the Jews heard of the decree, they should in the first instance have used these representatives to try and sway Ahasuerus to abrogate it.

But we find in the Megillah that Mordechai’s first action was that he “clothed himself in sackcloth and ashes and went out into the midst of the City.”15 He turned to repentance, and urged the rest of the Jews to do likewise.16 Only then did he send Esther “to come to the King and entreat him and plead with him for her people.”17

Esther herself behaved in the same way. When it became necessary for her to go to the King, the first thing she did was to charge Mordechai to “Go and gather all the Jews… and they should fast for me, and neither eat nor drink for three days and nights.’’18 In addition, Esther included herself: “I also… will fast likewise.”

At first glance it would seem essential for her to have found favor in Ahasuerus’ eyes. Her entry into the King’s inner court was “not according to the law.’’ It involved the risk of death: “Whoever… shall come to the King into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law of his to put to death.”19 Esther could not be sure of royal favor: “I have not been summoned… these thirty days.” If so, how could she contemplate fasting for three successive days, an act which in the normal course of events would have detracted from her beauty?

6. Cause and Cure

The reason is this. Mordechai and Esther knew for certain that Haman’s decree was not an accident of history, but a consequence of failings within the Jewish people.20 Since one cannot completely remove an effect (the decree) without destroying the cause, their first action was to call the Jewish people to repentance and fasting. It was not an undefined call: It articulated the specific sin which had to be rectified. The Midrash,21 commenting on Esther’s words, “and they shall fast for me and neither eat nor drink,” explains them thus: “You are fasting because you have eaten and drunk at Ahasuerus’ feast.”

They then went to Ahasuerus, to seek his annulment of the decree, because G‑d desires to bless man “through all that you do”22—through natural means. Going to Ahasuerus was (and was no more than) a way of allowing a Divine deliverance to be achieved through natural channels. The real cause of the deliverance lay not in the King’s decision, but in the fasting and repentance of the Jews. And so, though Mordechai and Esther used natural means, the emphasis of their concern lay in the underlying spiritual causes.

7. Natural and Supernatural Blessings

The moral is plain. In a time of adversity there are those who believe that the first and crucial step must be to try by all natural means to combat it. The Megillah teaches otherwise: That the initial act must be to strengthen one’s bond with G‑d, through learning Torah and keeping the commandments. Only then must one seek some physical channel through which the deliverance may flow. If one acts in this way, one’s deliverance will be supernatural—whatever natural guise it is revealed in.

This is for both the individual and the community. The Jew is committed to the knowledge that he is linked to G‑d, and that G‑d is not bounded by the laws of nature, even though He sends His blessings in the form of natural events. Man must prepare this channel, “through all that you do.” But since this is no more than a channel, his main aim must be to prepare to receive the Divine blessing through learning and fulfilling the Torah.

The effort by natural means is analogous to writing a check, which is of no use if the check is not covered by funds in the bank. The “funds” are the spiritual acts.

Perhaps one might think that this applies only to an age when G‑d’s presence was manifest; that now, in exile, when instead of revelation there is a “doubled and redoubled darkness,” G‑d had intrusted His Providence to the domain of natural law.

Purim comes as the refutation of this doubt. For the miracle of Purim occurred when the Jews were in exile, “scattered and dispersed amongst the peoples.”23 Nor did exile cease afterwards. But the deliverance came not—through natural causes, but because of the three day fast of the Jews.

This explains why Purim suggests concealment, in its Persian name, in its being called after the decree of Haman, and in the Megillah being devoid of the name of G‑d. It is to bring home the truth that the Jew is not bounded by natural law, not only in his spiritual life, not only in his dealings with fellow Jews, but even in his relation to the secular world: When he is forced to speak another language, when decrees are issued against him, when he is afraid to write G‑d’s name in case it is defiled.24

In the deepest concealment, revelation is found. In the name Megillat Esther, alongside the Esther (concealment) is Megillah (revelation). In the lottery (Purim) is found a symbol for the unpredictable, the supernatural.25 When G‑d says, “I will hide, yes hide My face,” He is saying: “Even when My face is hidden, you can still reach the “I”—I as I am beyond all names.”26 And as past redemption gives strength for future redemption,27 from Purim the Messianic Age will flow, when concealment will be turned into revelation, and “night will shine like day.”28

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. VI pp. 189-195)