The Eternity of Purim

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 4 maart 2022

In a remarkable midrash on Mishlei, we read the following: “All of the festivals will be nullified in the future (the messianic age, nlc), but Purim will never be nullified.” (1)

This assertion seems to fly in the face of Jewish tradition, which states categorically that the Jewish festivals mentioned in the Torah, such as Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot will never cease to be celebrated. This is mentioned by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah: “All the books of the Prophets and all the Scriptures will be nullified in the days of the Mashiach, except for Megillat Esther, which is as permanent as the Five Books of Moshe and the laws of the Oral Torah [including the festivals], which will never lose their relevance.” (2)

Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, in his famous commentary Torah Temimah (3), explains this contradiction – in the name of his father, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Halevi Epstein – in the following most original manner. The miracle of Purim is very different from the miracles mentioned in the Torah. While the latter were overt miracles, such as the ten plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, the revelation at Sinai and the falling of the man (manna) in the desert, the miracle of Purim was covert.

Unlike with the miracles narrated in the Torah, no law of nature was ever violated in the Purim story, and the Jews were saved from the hands of Haman harasha (the evil Haman) by seemingly normal historical occurrences. Had we lived in those days we would have noticed nothing unusual, and many secularists would have explained the redemption of the Jews in Persia as the logical outcome of a series of natural and coincidental events.

Only retroactively, when looking back at the story, would we have been astonished by all the incidents, their unusual sequence, and the seemingly unrelated and insignificant human acts that led to the complete redemption of the Jews during the time of Achashveirosh’s reign. The discovery that all these events actually concealed a miracle could only be made after the fact.

Covert miracles will never cease to exist, explains the Torah Temimah. In fact, they take place every day. But overt miracles such as the splitting of the Red Sea have come to an end. In light of this, the midrash on Mishlei is not suggesting that the actual festivals mentioned in the Torah will be nullified in future days, since this would contradict Jewish belief. Rather, it is stating that the original reasons for celebrating the festivals, namely overt miracles, have ceased.

So, one should read the midrash as follows: overt miracles, which we celebrate on festivals mentioned in the Torah, no longer occur. But covert miracles such as those celebrated on Purim will never end; they continue to occur every day of the year. In other words, all the other festivals will still be celebrated to commemorate great historical events in Jewish history, events to be remembered and relived in the imagination of the human being so as to make them relevant and teach us many lessons for our own lives.

Purim, on the other hand, although rooted in a historical event of many years ago, functions as a constant reminder that the Purim story never ended. We are still living it. The Megillah is open-ended; it was not and will never be completed! Covert miracles still happen.

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner z”l, uses this idea in his celebrated work Pachad Yitzchak (4) (volume on Purim, chapter 33) to explain a highly unusual halachic stipulation related to Purim. During all Torah festivals, the congregation sings Hallel, the well-known, classic compilation of specific Psalms. These Psalms praise God for all the great miracles He performed for Israel in biblical times, on occasions for which these festivals were later established. Why, then, asks the Talmud, do we not sing Hallel on Purim? Is there not even more reason to sing these Psalms on the day that God performed the great miracle of rescuing Israel from the hands of Haman? The Talmud answers “Kriyata zu hallila” (5) – the reading of Megillat Ester is in itself praise. When we read the story of Esther, we actually fulfill the obligation of singing Hallel, because telling this story is the greatest praise to God for having saved the Jews. Reading the story awakens in us a feeling of deep gratitude and appreciation for the miracle of Jewish survival against all odds.

Interestingly, one of the most celebrated commentators on the Talmud, Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249-1315), ponders the need to say Hallel on Purim if a person is unable to read or hear the Megillah. In this case, according to his opinion, the person should indeed sing Hallel, since one must thank God for what happened. Rabbi Hutner, however, points out that no other authority agrees with this opinion. They all rule that even if a person is unable to read the Megillah, they should still not sing Hallel.

Rabbi Hutner explains this ruling in a most remarkable way, based on our earlier explanation. The psalms in Hallel speak about overt miracles and praise God for His revealed wonders such as those related in the Torah. Hallel intentionally does not include praise to God for covert miracles, since those must be praised in a hidden way so as to remind the worshipper that such miracles occur on a daily basis. This is the reason why on Purim we read Megillat Ester and do not recite Hallel. Megillat Ester is the story of a hidden miracle, and through the reading of this story in front of a congregation, God receives praise in the appropriate way – in a subtle and hidden manner. After all, it is not God who needs praise, but people who need to praise; they must therefore do it in a way that corresponds to the actual miracle. They have to realize what kind of miracle took or takes place. Singing Hallel, instead, would be missing the point.

Moreover, one often wonders why the story of Purim is still relevant at all after the Holocaust. Not even a hidden miracle was performed to save the Jews from the hands of Hitler, a greater enemy than Haman. Why continue to praise God for a hidden miracle when it seems that even hidden miracles came to an end with the Holocaust? This question should be on the mind of every Jew who celebrates Purim. And it is not only the Holocaust that should raise this issue. The Spanish Inquisition; the many pogroms; and the various forms of exterminating complete Jewish communities throughout all of Jewish history, in which God’s saving hand was absent; all of these beg that very question. Shouldn’t these events convince Jews to abolish Purim altogether? History has proven Purim to be irrelevant and even offensive. How can we continue celebrating Purim when six million Jews, collectively, did not see the hidden hand of God and were left with no divine intervention? Is celebrating Purim not an affront to all those millions who were tortured and died under the most hideous circumstances?

Hundreds of personal stories describe how Jews risked their lives to rejoice in their Jewishness while facing the Nazis’ atrocities. In the extermination camps, they celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach and even Purim, and they literally had to decide whether to sing Hallel after failed attempts to find a Megillah. What was it that kept them going? Was it just wishful thinking? What they realized then, as never before, was the eternity and indestructibility of the Jews. Perpetuity is the very essence of the Jews. It was indeed the famous, somewhat anti-Semitic historian Arnold Toynbee who, with great annoyance, alluded to what history has taught us: any nation that will stand up against the Jews will ultimately disappear. Such was the fate of the ancient Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians and the Greeks, and such may yet be the fate of the Germans.

Jews have been an ever-dying people that never died. They continuously experience resurrection, like the dry bones that Yechezkel saw in the valley (7). This has become the sine qua non of every Jew. It is the mystery of the hidden miracle of survival in the face of overwhelming destruction. True, the Führer was Amalek, and Haman prevailed, but ultimately they were defeated. We live in spite of peril. Our refusal to surrender has turned our story into one long, unending Purim tale. To this day, a large part of the world does not know what to do with us. We make them feel uneasy because we represent something they can’t put their finger on. Jews are sui generis. More than anything else, it is the existence and survival of the State of Israel that irritates many. The rules of history predicted that the Jews would die a definite and final death; instead, we have become the greatest success story in all of modern history. Perplexity morphed into aversion. Where does this small nation, which does not comprise even one percent of the world population, have the chutzpah to play such a crucial role in science, technology, and many other areas of human knowledge?

What would the world do without Jews, who are responsible for so many inventions that are vital to the survival of the modern world? Great progress and major breakthroughs in the world of medicine, such as the treatment of paralysis, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and DNA breakdown, are Israeli accomplishments. What about Windows, voice mail, and the most advanced anti-terror systems? Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation, and in proportion to its population has the largest number of start-up companies in the world. It is ranked second in the world for venture capital funds. And the list goes on.

So Purim will never cease even after the Holocaust. And so we continue to celebrate this covert miracle!

Purim Sameach

(1) Midrash Mishlei 9:2.

(2) Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Megillah 2:18. For a completely different interpretation, see my booklet The Torah as God’s Mind: A Kabbalistic look into the Pentateuch (Bep-Ron Publications, Jerusalem, 1988).

(3) Torah Temimah on Megillat Ester 9:28.

(4) The volume on Purim, chapter 33.

(5) Masechet Megillah 14a.

(6) Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, 12 volumes, 1934-61

(7) See: Yechezkel 37: 1-14

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