The Turnaround of Purim – (based largely on ideas from Rav Berkowitz)
Purim is both the final holiday of the year (since it is celebrated in the twelfth of the twelve months of the Jewish year) as well as an experience of the final stage of all of history — the time of the Mashiach (Messiah) and Olam Haba (the world to come). King David describes this end of the galut (exile) in Shir HaMa’alos (Ps. 126) — “az y’malei s’chok pinu” — “our mouths will be filled (at that special end of days time) with s’chok”.
S’chok (a type of ironic laughter) is the essence of Jewish humor. It is when the arrogant man in the fancy suit slips on the banana peel. We laugh because it seems so just, appropriate, and fitting. It is what we sometimes refer to as poetic justice.
Rav Berkowitz explains that while Sukkot is called “zman simchateinu” (the time of our joy — a very normative Jewish idea), Purim could really be called “zman s’chokeinu” (the time of our laughter — a very unusual idea).
The essence of Purim is “nahapoch hu — a complete turnaround.” Just when things looked the worst, the Jews were saved with a “turnabout” — b’davka (especially and ironically) through the aspects of the story that had seemed to be the worst:
a. The wine in the banquet went from being one of the sources of the decree against the Jews, as well as a serious transgression, to becoming part of the solution and a mitzvah.
b. The parameters of honor which were established by Haman (he thought, for himself) ended up being given to Mordechai.
c. The gallows were built by Haman for Mordechai, and then used to hang Haman himself.
d. All of the property amassed by Haman, as well as his political position, was given to Mordechai.
e. Mordechai, who appeared to be the cause of the decree against the Jews, was really the key to the solution.
f. The tragedy of Esther being kidnapped from Mordechai ended up as the vehicle for the Jewish People’s salvation.
g. The 14th and 15th of Adar went from being days of destruction to becoming days of victory and celebration forever.
h. Adar went from being the most tragic month of the year to becoming the most joyous one. In addition, only because the seemingly random lottery process chose the month of Adar as the day when the Jews would initially be targeted for annihilation, did they ultimately have enough time to be saved.
“Nahapoch hu — It was all turned around!”
A Time for Understanding
Purim, as we mentioned, is an experience of the days of Mashiach (Messiah) and Olam Haba (the world to come) — not only in the aspect of turnaround and salvation, but also in the clarity and understanding that will characterize that time.
The Shabbat following Tisha b’Av is known as Shabbat Nachamu. We read the haftarah from the prophet Yeshaya which begins with the words — “Nachamu nachamu ami — Console, console My nation.” Yeshaya consoled the Jewish People with two different stages of nechama (consolation) which will occur in the end of days:
a. The first stage of nechama is that at the end of history, after all of the exiles and persecutions have ended, there will finally be an end to all the suffering of the Jewish people, both individually and communally.
b. The second stage of nechama is that, at the time of this final salvation, we will be able to look back at all of the difficulties and challenges that the Jewish People have experienced. We will then be able to understand why all of this needed to occur, and how each difficulty played a role in bringing us to this final redemption. Not only will we then recognize that everything Hashem did was for our ultimate benefit; we will actually see how it was for our benefit.
The Gemara (Pesachim 50a) explains that Olam Haba (the world to come) is fundamentally different from Olam Ha’zeh (this world). In Olam Ha’zeh, we make two different blessings, depending on what occurs to us. We make the blessing “HaTov v’HaMeitiv — Blessed is G-d Who is good and causes good” for what appears very positive to us. And we make the blessing “Boruch Dayan HaEmes — Blessed is the True Judge” for events which seem very bad to us. The Gemara goes on to say that in Olam Haba we will only make the single blessing of “HaTov v’HaMeitiv — Blessed is G-d Who is good and causes good” for everything that happens to us.
Purim — a present-day glimpse into this Messianic/Olam Haba perspective — is a tremendous opportunity for growth. We are able to attain a deep awareness of and connection to Hashem far beyond our normal level, understanding that there is ultimately no difference between hashgacha (Divine supervision) and teva (nature).
Looking Below the Surface
This can give us an insight into the special halacha on Purim of “Kol haposheit yad, notnin lo” — to give tzedaka to any poor person that holds out his hand. We should try to give to anyone that asks us, regardless of whether it appears to us that they are truly needy or deserving. If we do that, then based on the principle of mida k’neged mida (measure for measure), Hashem may give us what we ask for on Purim even if we are not truly needy or deserving. This halacha really pushes us to incorporate this Purim perspective, of not merely relying on our superficial perceptions, into our actions.
And if we are able to live with the realization that hashgacha equals teva, even just on the day of Purim itself, then Hashem will no longer need to hide Himself or His hashgacha from us, to preserve our free will. He can simply give us what we are asking for directly. Perhaps the most unappreciated mitzvah of Purim, therefore, is prayer.
Both Yom Kippur and Purim share the same goal — to accentuate the reality of the neshama (soul) and ruchnius (spirituality).
On Yom Kippur we ignore the body and gashmius (physicality) in general — as much as we can.
On Purim, however, we see much less of a conflict between the physical and the spiritual. The gashmiyus is really a manifestation of the ruchniyus. This is similar to the very curious halacha that we are supposed to drink on Purim until we no longer know the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.” In other words, even the ultimate manifestation of curse and blessing are not really as different from one another as we normally think.
In this way we can see that Purim is actually greater, in a sense, than Yom Kippur — both as a revelation of hashgachas Hashem, as well as an opportunity to get close to Hashem.
The lack of sheim Hashem (G-d’s Name) in the Megillah works as a metaphor to express G-d’s hidden relationship to the world, specifically during times of galut (exile). Paradoxically, this very hiddenness provides more “space” for us to build a relationship with Hashem. The fact that Hashem didn’t overwhelm us with His openly manifest presence allowed the second acceptance of the Torah during Purim to actually have a greater aspect than the first time at Har Sinai.
Esther is paradoxically called “Ayelet HaShachar” — the morning star — the beginning of daytime, since she was the end of open miracles. This teaches us that the clarity (expressed by the daytime) which is possible specifically without open miracles, where we will need to work harder to see Hashem in the world and in our lives, ultimately has the potential for a closer relationship with Hashem than where His existence is undeniably manifest. In a similar manner, the closeness to Hashem which is possible on Purim is even greater than that of Yom Kippur. The idea of gam zu l’tova (believing that everything happens for the best) is particularly important and relevant in galut (exile), when all is dark and Hashem is hidden. We are able to see the hand of Hashem in the world today, as long as we look beneath the surface.
This message, that the hashgacha of Hashem exists in a hidden manner today, is relevant for the nation as well as for every individual Jew. Every one of us could really write our own individual “Megillah”. We have all had situations which looked terrible at the time, but later turned out to be good; where everything seemed hopeless, but in the end we prevailed. This hindsight which we have on past events should help us to “toast” even our present situations where we don’t see the end yet — to realize that these are also part of a positive process for the future.
R’ Elazar Ashkenazi points out, however, that there actually is a sheim Hashem which is hinted at in the Megillah twice (i.e., in the four Hebrew letters Y-H-V-K, spelling out the name of Hashem, at the beginning and at the end of two different four-word phrases):
a. (5:4) “Esther said, ‘If it please the King, let the King and Haman come today (yavo haMelech v’Haman hayom) to the banquet that I have prepared for him (i.e., Haman).’”
b. (7:7) “The King rose in a rage from the wine feast and went into the palace garden while Haman remained to beg Esther HaMalkah for his life, for he saw that the King’s evil determination against him was final (ki kalsah eilav hara’ah).”
This shows us that from the beginning of Haman’s rise to power until the end of his downfall — all was guided by Hashem! The Vilna Gaon (Shir HaShirim 2:8) similarly explains that there are two different types of miracles — open and obvious (like in Egypt) and hidden (like with Purim).
The Eternal Holiday
A final paradox with Purim is that, even though it is a Rabbinical holiday, in the times of Mashiach, as the Rambam points out, it will actually be even more relevant than the Torah holidays. Rav Hutner zt”l addressed this puzzle with a beautiful mashal (analogy) involving palace guards. Some guards are on duty during the daytime and some during the night. The day guards recognize the king by his face and the night guards recognize him by his voice. Which one is more versatile? A day guard working during the night would need a candle to recognize the king’s face, while a night guard working during the day would still be able to recognize his voice.
[Previously, when referring to Esther as Ayelet HaShachar, since she marked the end of open miracles, daytime was used to express the deeper relationship with Hashem that was then possible through working to connect with Hashem specifically in the midst of the darkness of galut. Here daytime is referring to the openly manifest clarity that will exist automatically during the times of the Mashiach.]
Rav Hutner explained that we, who are presently living in the darkness of galut, are like a day guard during the night. In order for us to recognize Hashem, we need to use candles, which are what the Torah holidays are. During the times of Mashiach, when it will be like daytime, we will, therefore, have less need for the candles of the Torah holidays to recognize and connect with Hashem. The extra perception which we acquired during Purim, however, when we learned to hear Hashem‘s voice in the midst of the darkness of galut (and thereby developed a much deeper intrinsic connection to Him), will still be relevant even during the times of Mashiach.
Purim — A Taste of the Future
Shabbos is referred to as mey’ein Olam Haba (an aspect of the world to come). Perhaps Purim should be called mey’ein yemos haMashiach (an aspect of the days of the Messiah). Purim is our once-a-year opportunity to see the world through the Messianic perspective, which is ultimately the truest perception of all. The Hebrew word for “world” is olam which is related to the word “neelam,” meaning hiddenness. The clarity that hashgacha equals teva is the highest level of awareness that is possible in Olam Hazeh — since it is really giving us access to the vantage point of Olam Haba. This directly addresses and overcomes the ne’elam (the hiddenness of Hashem) inherent in Olam Hazeh.
As I once heard from Rav Orlowek, this world is a hide-and seek game — Hashem is hiding and we are trying to find Him. Purim is when we are able to peek behind the curtain, where He has been hiding for these past 2,000 years of galut, to see Him watching us and guiding every single aspect of our lives. And ideally, we should keep some of that insight and awareness with us all throughout the rest of the year.
Rav Berkowitz was a teacher at Aish HaTorah for many years, which is when he first taught these ideas, and is now the head of the Jerusalem Kollel. He is one of the most prominent english-speaking Rabbis in Jerusalem today.