Timely Torah
by Rabbi Sam Shor

Endless Joy: Understanding the Enduring, Eternal Appeal of the Holiday of Purim

One of the most joyous dates on our Jewish calendar is the holiday of Purim. Purim commemorates the salvation of the Jewish community during the Babylonian exile, the period between the First and Second Temples (roughly 2400 years ago). The book of Esther outlines the entire history to this annual commemoration including the vivid depiction of each of the familiar characters; the Torah Sage Mordechai and his close relative and heroine of the story, Esther; King Achashverosh and of course the king’s viceroy and villain of the story, Haman.

I recently received a joke via email that went something like this: “Jewish holidays:
They tried to kill us,
we won,
let’s eat!”

There are several commemorations on the Jewish calendar, including most of our public fast days, when we recall the many painful periods throughout our history when the survival of the Jewish People was indeed imperiled. How is Purim similar to the many other commemorations that recall the persecution of the Jewish people throughout history, and how is it somehow still distinctive?

There is an interesting law in the Code of Maimonides, which alludes to this very question:

Kol Sifrei Haneviim v’chol haketuvim atidin libateil limot hamashiach, chutz mimegilat Ester, vharei hi kayemet kachamisha chumshei torah, v’ch’halachot shel torah shebaal peh sheeinan betailin l’olam. V’af al pi shekol zichron hatzarot yebateil, yimei haPurim lo yibatlu...” (Hilchot Megila, 2:18)

All of the books of the Prophets and Writings will be rendered irrelevant in the Messianic Era with the exception of the Scroll of Esther, which will continue and be fulfilled just as the five books of the Torah and like the laws of the Oral tradition which will never be rendered irrelevant. And even though all recollection of pain and trauma will eventually become irrelevant, the days of Purim will never cease to be relevant...” (Laws of the Scroll [of Esther]: 2:18)

Maimonides makes two important statements in the above entry which require further examination and clarification. First, how are we to understand the rationale that the various books of the prophetic writings will be rendered irrelevant during the Messianic Era; and secondly, what distinguishes the Book of Esther and the commemoration of Purim from the other prophetic writings so that it will remain relevant even during Messianic Times?

The Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchak Zeev Soloveitchik, clarifies the words of Maimonides. He writes that there is a fundamental difference between our era (he lived in the 20th Century) and the Messianic Era, in that, in the Messianic era we will never again face a period of tremendous anguish as we have throughout history.

The various stories of prophetic guidance in troubling times and the many commemorations associated with these prophecies are relevant, as their messages of hope and overcoming and surviving these traumatic periods in history give us strength and perspective in dealing with whatever pain and suffering we might encounter in our days. However in the Messianic era, when mankind will never again experience pain and suffering, these prophetic messages and commemorations no longer will have the same relevance-we’ll no longer need these messages of encouragement in overcoming life’s difficulties as we will enter into an era of unity and comfort.

So this beautiful teaching clarifies the perspective of Maimonides (based on the Jerusalem Talmud) as to why the many prophetic works will one day be rendered irrelevant, but still our question regarding Purim remains. If all recollection of painful periods, and of our survival through challenging episodes will be null and void, then clearly Purim must have an additional message beyond that tongue and cheek joke of ‘they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat,’ that gives both the story and many commemorations associated with Purim its eternal significance.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner suggests a beautiful answer to this lingering question in his collection of essays on the Jewish holidays Tal Chermon al Hamoadim. Rav Aviner directs us to the concluding verses of the eighth chapter of Megilat Esther. At this point of the story Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews has been revealed, Mordechai has been rewarded for earlier disclosing a plot to harm the King, and Mordechai is being led through the streets of the capital, in royal garments on the King’s horse. Mordechai, the pre-eminent Torah scholar of his generation is returned to a position of nobility. Mordechai who in the opening chapters of the story is humiliated by Haman who demanded that Mordechai bow before him, has been restored to a position of prominence, to the noble status befitting a giant of Jewish scholarship and piety. And then comes the verse which holds the secret to the enduring message of Purim:

Layehudim hayta Ora v’simcha, v’sasson vikar” “And the Jews had Light, gladness, joy, and honor...”( Ester 8:16)

Rav Aviner focuses on the word ora- what does it mean that the Jews had light? He cites the verse from Mishlei (Proverbs): “ ki ner mitzva v’torah or...” “Since each mitzva is (likened to) a candle and the torah is light...”

So Mordechai the great Torah Sage is restored to a position of nobility, and the Jewish people once again have light, the light of Torah has been restored, the honor of Torah has been restored. Ultimately instead of facing destruction the Jewish people survive, and are allowed to resume construction of the Second Temple.

Rav Aviner suggests that the enduring, eternal message of Purim is not only the celebration of our survival and triumph over Haman, but rather the eternal splendor , joy and divine light that the Torah’s wisdom can bring to our lives. This is precisely why Megilat Esther is enduringly relevant as the five books of the Torah, and why Purim is such a joyous commemoration- a manifestation of the overwhelming joy of basking in the light that is Torah, the wisdom and inspiration that allows us to bring the light of the divine into our world...

Purim Sameach ....Happy Purim!

Rabbi Sam Shor