Purim: Opposite Day

By Jonathan Berkowitz


Purim is a holiday of opposites. Although it is a unique and singular holiday, the word Purim is the plural of pur or lot. Lot is the root word of lottery, a chance mechanism such as drawing lots. The holiday is so named because Haman cast lots to determine the day on which all the Jews should die. The name leads to another opposite. Of all the Jewish holidays, Purim has the shortest name, in English, yet it gave us the megillah, which has been adopted into the English lexicon and means a long and involved story.

Purim can be seen as an opposite of Yom Kippur, which has the formal name Yom Hakippurim. That looks like Yom Haki-purim, meaning “a day like Purim.” That wordplay doesn’t originate with me; it comes from the Vilna Gaon. Yom Kippur is very formal, serious, and proper. Purim emphasizes being informal, playful, and improper.

In Rabbi ‘Yitz’ Greenberg’s The Jewish Way, he explains that Purim is about confronting Jewish destiny. He notes another opposite. He says, “Purim is deceptively simple. On the surface,… a charming melodrama. Yet… Purim, which supports enormous theological freight, may well be the darkest, most depressing holiday of the Jewish calendar—a hair’s breadth away from despair.”

The authenticity of the tale as history is suspect, but the story, and the holiday arose from our experience living as a minority in the Diaspora. Greenberg calls Purim, THE holiday of the Diaspora, and says, “It offers a special guide to Jews who plan to continue living in Diaspora despite the fact that after two thousand years, the road to Jerusalem is open to any and every Jews who wants to go there.”

Another opposite is seen in theology and reality. After the destruction of the First Temple, the Israelites were exiled. Theologically, exile is a curse, a punishment for sins, unnatural, and a sign of brokenness. Did the first exile mean that God had rejected the people and the covenant? Surprisingly, the Israelites adjusted very well to life in the Diaspora. Those in Persia did much better than the struggling community that returned to the ruined, run-down Holy Land and the newly rebuilt but far less grand new temple. Diaspora life was markedly different from life back in Israel. But, with the arrival of Haman as prime minister, the Jews of Persia experienced an unexpected and incredible reversal, another opposite.

Purim contrast with all the biblical holidays in which God has an active and visible role. Even in the Hanukkah story the Divine Presence shows up in the miracle of the oil.

From Jacob’s struggle with Esau who was the ancestor of Amalek, to the Amalek attack on the Israelites in the desert, the great battle of good versus evil, God’s presence is veiled. Moses stood on the mountaintop with staff held high to inspire the Jewish people in the battle. Joshua led a victorious military campaign on the ground. God worked behind the scenes of history.

Incidentally, the walled cities that celebrate Shushan Purim are those from the days of Joshua Bin Nun, not from the days of Mordechai and Esther. A likely reason lies in Joshua’s heroic role in the desert battle against Amalek.

God’s name is absent from the Book of Esther, the only narrative book in the Bible where this is so. Rabbi Nathan Laufer explains it succinctly, “The message underlying the story is that in the face of unprovoked, unexplained, diabolical evil, the face of God is hidden.”

And yet, as with Hanukkah, from the absence of God’s name and face, the rabbis derived God’s hidden presence. This presence from absence, first read in Deuteronomy (Deut. 31:17-18) is another opposite. The rabbis connected the name Esther with hester panim, literally “hiding face,” for the hiding of the Divine Presence in the face of evil. They go further. They argue that coincidences in the Purim story aren’t coincidences. They are evidence of God manipulating events through Mordechai and Esther to reach redemption. As Rabbi Laufer puts it, “God, as it were, wore the mask of the heroine and hero of the Jewish people, Esther and Mordechai, to manifest His will in the world.”

Although the books of the Maccabees did not make it into the Hebrew Bible, the rabbis did decide to include, albeit with some initial resistance, the story of this “masked miracle.” They concluded that the Jewish calendar should acknowledge our never-ending battle against Amalek and the forces of radical evil, and how we survived thanks to the hidden presence of God, working with and through humans.

Since our battles continue from generation to generation, the festival of Purim must be an annual celebration. We are mandated to hear a public reading of the megillah—the mitzvah is in the hearing, not the actual reading.

On Purim, we act like the hidden God. We mask our faces as we acknowledge and celebrate our victory over depraved evil.

Celebrating Purim and the vanquishing of evil is our hopeful response to the daily news reports of terror, torment, and treachery involving Jews and non-Jews alike. This holiday teaches us that humans need to take responsibility for their own fate. Rabbi Greenberg puts it very succinctly, “The final liberator will be a human redeemer.” And that’s no laughing matter. So, enjoy noshin’ on hamantaschen, shakin’ your groggers until you’re groggy, and listenin’ to the thrilla megillah.