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Purim: Life is a Masquerade

by Rabbi Adin (Steinsaltz) Even-Yisrael

  

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The holiday of Purim is unusual, even strange, in many ways. 

It is the only time of the year when we are not only allowed, but expected, to get drunk. 

We look at the Megillah and see people doing things that don’t make sense for them, as if they were drunk or, perhaps, insane:  Vashti refuses to appear at the King’s party, and is killed for it.  The two guards conspiring to kill the King allow their plans to become known, and are executed.  Haman’s grandiose plans for being honored are turned around, as he is forced to honor Mordechai, and then the gallows he built for Mordechai are used, instead, for him.

It is also the only holiday when we have the custom to masquerade.  Again, this seems to come straight from the Megillah, where so many people are acting and, in some way, wearing a mask:  Achashverosh is the King, but he doesn’t act like a king; every time he has to make a decision, he has to ask others to help him.  The guards are supposed to be protecting Achashverosh, but they are actually plotting to kill him.  Haman is promoted to a position of power, but he is still just a poor little anti-Semitic wretch.  And Esther hides her Jewish identity for years. 

Even God seems to be wearing a mask, hiding His face, so to speak and allowing the Jews to believe that He is so angry at us that He will allow us to be destroyed.  In fact, He is so hidden that He is not mentioned in the Megillah at all.  The Talmud1 even identifies the source [in the Torah] for [the story of] Esther as the verse2 “V’anochi haster astir panai" – I will hide My face. 

God’s Name is absent in the Megillah that records the story of Purim, and God’s power seems to be absent, too.  We refer to Purim as miraculous, but where are the miracles? On the surface, everything seems to be explained.  Everything is rational, with a clear cause-and-effect chain.  So where is the miracle?

To understand it, we have to know that there are, generally, two kinds of miracles.

In the miracles of the first period of Jewish history, the ones that we celebrate on our major holidays – Pesach, Shavuot, Succot – Divine providence was obvious.  When the Red Sea was divided, the face of God was apparent.  In the events on Mount Sinai, the face of God was apparent.  These and other supernatural miracles – miracles of the first order – are clear, and they are visibly directional and intentional. 

Footnotes

  • 1. Chullin 139b
  • 2. Deuteronomy 31:18

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Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Talmud
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
Purim
A one-day holiday celebrated in late winter commemorating the miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people from a decree of annihilation issued by Persian King Ahasuerus in the year 356 BCE.
Chanukah
An eight day mid-winter holiday marking: 1) The miraculous defeat of the mighty Syrian-Greek armies by the undermanned Maccabis in the year 140 BCE. 2) Upon their victory, the oil in the Menorah, sufficient fuel for one night only, burned for eight days and nights.
Megillah
A scroll. Usually a reference to the Book of Esther, one of the books of the "Written Torah", which is read--from a scroll--on the holiday of Purim.
Haman
Descendant of anti-Semitic tribe of Amalek and prime minister of the Persian Empire in the 5th century b.c.e. Schemed to annihilate all the Jews, and the holiday of Purim was established when the plot was foiled.
Esther
1. Jewish wife of Persian King Ahasuerus in the 4th century BCE. Foiled the plot of Haman, the prime minister, to exterminate all the Jews. The holiday of Purim commemorates this miraculous salvation. 2. One of the 24 Books of the Bible, which chronicles the abovementioned story.
Mordechai
Cousin of Queen Esther, and Jewish leader in the 4th century BCE. Played a large role in saving the Jews after Haman, the Persian prime minister, plotted to exterminate them all. The holiday of Purim was established to commemorate this miracle.
Shavuot
Early summer festival marking the day when the Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai in the year 2448 (1312 BCE).
Jerusalem
Established by King David to be the eternal capital of Israel. Both Temples were built there, and the third Temple will be situated there when the Messiah comes.
Pesach
Passover. A Biblically mandated early-spring festival celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt in the year 1312 BCE.