The year 2000 was a witness to one of the most interesting coincidences in recent history: the visit of Pope John Paul II to Israel, coinciding with the Jewish festival of Purim. The Pope's visit brought a large number of Catholic pilgrims to Israel, most of whom were unaware of the festival, and were especially unaware of the custom of dressing in costume on Purim.
I remember reading a comment by one of the visitors, a Catholic woman from the United States. She was quoted in the Jerusalem Post about her thoughts of her trip to Israel, and mentioned that she had seen lots of children dressed in costume. "I guess that's what they do for fun around here," she remarked.
Obviously. "That's what they do for fun." It wasn't Halloween, so what were all the children doing in costume?
We read the Book of Esther this week in observance of the festival of Purim. On the surface, the Book of Esther appears to be a simple story of good versus evil, but a careful look through it reveals much more. It is the only book of the Hebrew scriptures that does not mention God by name, and yet we see His impact at every turn of the story. In remembrance of God concealing Himself behind the seemingly mundane events mentioned in the Book of Esther, we dress in costume and masks today.
By looking closely at the words and names in the Book of Esther, we can see subtle hints of God's presence.
The name Purim comes from the Hebrew word "pur," which means "a lottery." Haman conducted a lottery to find the most conducive day for killing the Jews. Rabbi David Feinstein, one of the foremost contemporary Jewish leaders, comments, "a pur is a special kind of lottery. Rather than being conducted at random, a pur utilizes logic and astrology to determine which day is best for the purpose at hand."
Haman did not realize that unlike the fates of the gentile nations which are influenced by the stars and random forces in the universe, the fate of the Jews is not. Our fate and future are only determined by God and our belief in Him. Even though Haman saw through astrology that the Jews would be doomed on Purim, God's promise to always protect us superseded even the power of the stars.
Purim falls during the Hebrew month of Adar. The word Adar can be divided into the letter Aleph, and the word dor. Aleph can either be a letter or a word, and as a word it is a name for God. Dor means "dwells." In the month of Adar it can be truly said "God dwells," because he made His presence and His powers felt throughout the Purim story.
Esther, the heroine of the Purim story, can provide us with a deep understanding of the festival if we look closely at her name. The Talmud asks, “Where is Esther mentioned in the Torah?” (Tractate Chulin 139b). The sages teach that every event is predetermined and is hinted at in the Torah, and therefore Esther’s name must appear. The Talmud answers that her name is hinted at in the verse “Ve-Ani Haster ASTEER Panai BaYom Hahu, – But I will surely have concealed My face on that day” (Deuteronomy 31:18). (The Talmud notes that “Asteer” is very similar to “Esther.”) The sages say that this refers directly to the Purim story, in which numerous miracles occur, even though God is not explicitly seen. Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator explains, "In the days of Esther there will be a concealment of the divine countenance."
At every turn of the Purim story, events occur which demonstrate God's controlling hand. Esther just happens to become the Queen although she does everything to avoid it. Mordechai just happens to hear about the plot to kill King Achashverosh, and so on. It is very similar to life itself - God no longer creates overt miracles, and yet it is impossible to ignore His power in our lives.
The Sages call Haman "the enemy of the Jews". The word tzoreir, in addition to meaning "enemy," also means, "to bind together." At the beginning of the Book of Esther, Haman said to King Achashverosh: "There is one nation, scattered and separated" (Book of Esther 3:8). The Jews have always gained strength through unity, and in times of infighting we are weak and vulnerable. Esther knew this and, therefore, before she appealed to the king to save her people, she instructed Mordechai, "Go, assemble all the Jews to be found in Shushan" (ibid 4:16). Esther knew that the communal prayers and united fasting of the Jews would allow her petition to King Achashverosh to be successful.
Haman's threats led the Jews to join together. The sages point out that when King Achashverosh allowed Haman to kill the Jews (by giving Haman his signet ring), it inspired the Jews to greater repentance than all the prophets and prophetesses had ever achieved (Book of Esther 14a). Therefore Haman is truly "the one who bound the Jews together."
Even an evil person is rewarded by God for his good deeds. Haman was rewarded for unifying the Jewish people by having his descendents convert to Judaism and study in Bnai Brak, Israel (Tractate Gittin 57b).
Mordechai carried the Jews on his shoulders during the time of crisis, in a role similar to that played by Moses during the exodus and 40 years in the desert. Rabbi David Feinstein points out an interesting parallel between these two leaders. The written Torah contains 613 commandments, and the sages added 7 additional principle commandments for a total of 620. Purim was the 619th commandment. Using Gematria (the system by which Hebrew letters have numerical values) we find that the value of Mordechai plus the value of Moses equals 619.
This connection reflects the two stages of Jewish history. While Moses was alive, God revealed himself openly to the Jewish people. God did overt miracles (such as the splitting of the sea, the giving of manna), and spoke directly to Moses. The second period, from the time of Mordechai until the present, is marked by hidden miracles and concealment of God. God continues to play an active role, but He does so covertly.
During the Papal visit, the Pope visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and prayed at the Western Wall, to express his sorrow for the millions of Jews killed during the last two millennia by or with the knowledge of the church. Throughout our history, tyrants from Pharoah to Haman, Church leaders to the Nazis, have tried to eliminate us. The world has long believed that we are a tiny and helpless people, with no one to help us. However, we know differently. Even in the darkest days when all hope is lost, we know that if we are loyal to God, He will step from the shadows and save us.
This column is dedicated in memory of Dan Miller.
Michael Gros, an alumnus of Emory University, writes from Israel, where he learns at Yeshiva Marbeh Torah.
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