In the year 2448 from Creation, the Jewish people received the Torah on Sinai. (We are now in year 5779.) Because the Purim miracle happened some 955 years later, the holiday is not mentioned in the Torah. Yet when the full extent of the miracle was appreciated, the Men of the Great Assembly – אנשי כנסת הגדולה – instituted Purim as an eternal holiday for the Jewish people. This auspicious Assembly comprised the 120 greatest scholars of the time, many of whom were prophets. Mordechai, one of the heroes of the story, himself a prophet, was an elite member of this group.
In adding Purim to the Jewish holiday calendar, the Men of the Great Assembly instituted four mitzvot that one needs to fulfill on Purim. These four rabbinic commandments are: (1) מקרא מגילה – To hear the Megillah read both night and day. (2) סעודה – To have a festive meal of celebration on Purim day. (3) מתנות לאביונים -To give charity to at least two poor people. (4) משלוח מנות – To send two foods to a friend.
Purim thus parallels the Biblical holidays of Pesach and Sukkot, which each come with specific mitzvot to help us experience the holiday’s unique message. On Pesach, some of the mitzvot that we have are (1) to have a seder to tell the story of our exodus to our children (2) to eat only Matzah to remember the slavery, and our hasty exodus from Egypt (3) to ear maror, bitter herbs, to recall the bitter slavery from which we were freed. These mitzvot enhance the holiday by focusing us on the essence of the holiday. Similarly, on Sukkot we must (1) dwell and eat in the sukkah, and (2) shake the lulav and etrog.
On a deeper level, the Torah’s concept of a holiday is not the commemoration of an historical event, rather, the Torah wants us to relive the events that transpired on the holiday. This idea is based on the Torah’s perception of time as a yearly cycle instead of a linear progression. Because every year is a repeat of the same 365 – day cycle, when we annually come to the date of a holiday in the calendar, we find ourselves at precisely the same point in the cycle that the Jewish people were at many years ago. This is quite significant: when the date of a holiday comes around, the identical holy energy that emanated from Heaven at the holiday’s inception appears again. For example Passover, is זמן חרותינו – the season of our freedom. This is the time in our history when freedom was in the air. And that spiritual energy that then brought about our freedom once again “fills the air,” and we can harness it to experience freedom from the many issues that enslave us today. Through performing the commandments that accompany the holiday, we are able capture that holy energy, make it part of us, and infuse ourselves with a renewed ability as Jews to achieve what hashem wants from us.
This was the goal of the Men of the Great Assembly when they instituted the four mitzvot of Purim. Each one helps us appreciate a different aspect of the miracle and provides us with the tools to absorb it so that we may grow from the holiday.
The first mitzvah, to read the Megillah on Purim night and, again, the next day, gives us an appreciation of the miracle that Hashem wrought when He saved the Jewish people from Haman’s murderous decree. Listening to the Megillah, we review the story and see how, behind the scenes and unbeknownst to anyone, Hashem carefully orchestrated the salvation of the Jewish people. How?
Through a series of unprecedented events, He planted Esther in the palace where she would be in a position to beseech the king on behalf of her people. Mordechai then saved the king’s life and was inscribed in the king’s book of memoirs. Five years later, when the king could not sleep, he “happened” to read the account of Mordechai saving his life and decided that it was time to reward him. When Haman “happened” to be in the courtyard just when the king needed some advice, Haman sealed his fate by giving the king the wrong advice. This turned the entire story on its head; now Haman was on the bottom, and Mordechai was on top. There are many examples of how Hashem, behind the scenes, turned every one of Haman’s plans to destroy the Jews into a debacle for him and a salvation for the Jews.
The Jewish people had experienced Hashem’s careful and continuous protection every step of the way from when they left Egypt throughout the time they were in the Land of Israel. Purim is unique in that the Jewish people were not in the land of Israel, and no open miracles occurred in the process.
Purim took place towards the end of the 70 – year exile between the first and second Holy Temples. These were very dark times for the Jews because they were not in Israel and did not have the Holy Temple with its daily service to protect them. The Holy Temple had ten open miracles that took place every day, which proved the connection of Hashem to His people. With the Holy Temple gone, the Jewish people could easily have thought that they were done for, seemingly having lost their open connection to Hashem. The Purim miracle proved that even in the darkest times, Hashem is always with us, protecting us behind the scenes.
This is why the Purim holiday is so meaningful to us. We are in exile now for over 2,000 years, and it is heartening to see clearly, through the story of Purim, that Hashem is always with us, even in these dark times. We realize through the Purim story that just as Hashem was behind the scenes, pulling the strings to orchestrate His People’s salvation, He is doing the same for us now. Though now we cannot see how each piece is being carefully put into place to bring the ultimate salvation, when the correct time comes, Hashem will activate the process, and all the pieces will fall into place and miraculously bring the Mashiach and the final redemption.
On Purim we surprisingly do not recite the Hallel prayer, the collection of Psalms that we read on every festival, Rosh Chodesh, and on Chanukah. Addressing that issue, the Talmud tells us that reading the Megillah on Purim takes the place of saying Hallel. We learn from this that as we hear the story of Purim read, our hearts should fill with praise and thanksgiving to Hashem for the miracle that He brought upon our people.
This realization is great cause for celebration with food and drink, which brings us to Purim’s second mitzvah, having a festive meal. Because Haman posed a physical threat to the Jewish people by trying to kill every Jew, we celebrate physically with food and drink, something that people enjoy, to show that we are still alive and fully enjoying life. This stands in contrast to Chanukah, which represented a spiritual threat, and, therefore, no festive meal is mandated. The Greeks were not out to kill us, only to convert us to their way of life.
Another concept behind the festive meal is that the Jews sinned by eating and drinking at King Achashverosh’s less than somber party. By eating and drinking for the sake of the mitzvah, we counteract the illegal enjoyment that the people had so many years ago in the City of Shushan.
The reason behind the next two mitzvot is not so evident. What does giving charity and presents of food have to do with the miracle of Purim? The answer? Everything! And now for the “rest of the story.”
The Talmud Tractate Megillah13b says:
אמר רבא ליכא דידע לישנא בישא כהמן
Rava said: No one knew how to speak lashon hora (evil speech) as well as Haman could.
What did he say already? (Esther 3:8)
ספר אסתר פרק ג
(ח) וַיֹּאמֶר הָמָן לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ
And Haman said to the king Ahashverosh. “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples, in all the provinces of your realm.”
Our Sages explain Haman’s statement to mean that the Jewish people were scattered and dispersed among themselves – they were not unified, and, because of that, they are vulnerable and we can annihilate them.
What is the secret of the Jewish Nation’s unity? Why are we invincible when we are unified? The Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato 1707-1747) writes in מאמר החכמה.
וצריך שתדע שהנה האדון ב”ה הוא אחד, ואין הארתו מתחזקת אלא במה שמתאחד, והנה ישראל אע”פ שבאישיהם הם רבים נקראים גוי אחד, והם ראוים לשתתחזק בם הארתו ית’
You must know, that Hashem is אחד – One, and His influence can only be manifest in something that is also one. The Jewish nation, even though it comprises individuals, is called one nation, and only through them can Hashem’s convey His influence to the world.
Our mission as a nation is to reflect Hashem’s godliness to the world. By keeping the perfect laws of the Torah, we become models of perfect behavior in all areas of life and show the world the greatness of Hashem and His perfect prescription for life. If the world saw one completely unified nation, Hashem’s nation, all doing the right thing, they would follow our example. This was the Divine plan for humanity: that the Jewish nation, through keeping the Torah, be the role models for the rest of the world, and then, through following our example, they would also become elevated.
When, however, the Jewish nation is not unified in its fulfillment of the Torah, and each person acts as he sees fit, we do not present a unified picture to the rest of the world, and we fall short of our mission. This is why Jewish unity is so essential to our existence. It defines our purpose in the world. When we are fulfilling the purpose for which we were created, we are indispensable to the world, and, thus, invulnerable. But when we do not fulfill our mission in the world, we are dispensable and can be destroyed.
This idea is very beautifully expressed in the Talmud, Tractate Berachot 6a.
After informing us that just as we wear Tefillin, Hashem, so to speak, also wears Tefillin, Rav Nachman son of R’ Yitzchak said to R’ Chiya son of R’ Avin, “What does it say in Hashem’s Tefillin?”
אמר ליה) וּמִי כְּעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל גּוֹי אֶחָד בָּאָרֶץ
He answered him, “Who is like your nation Israel, one nation in the land.”
Our Tefillin contain the Shema, which proclaims Hashem as the One and only G-d. We proudly wear them daily on our arms and heads declaring that we are the nation of the One and Only G-d. At the same time, Hashem also wears His Tefillin (so to speak), which proclaim our oneness as His people. When we do Hashem’s will as one unified nation, we reflect to the world the oneness of Hashem.
How is that? When an orchestra’s different musicians join to play a Beethoven symphony and obey the conductor’s directions, the music that emanates from their different instruments produces the magnificent and harmonious piece of music that Beethoven composed. If, however, they ignore the conductor and play what they want to play and when they want to play it, not only will it sound nothing like what Beethoven intended his symphony to be, but it will be a musical disaster.
In the same sense, when we all follow our conductor, Hashem, and keep the Torah as He has instructed us, our orchestra conveys His beautiful harmonious message to the world. But when we each do as we please, we convey no unified message, and we are not fulfilling our mission, so we are vulnerable.
This is the lashon hora that Haman told Achashverosh. We are “scattered and dispersed,” every man is for himself.
What was the antidote to this lashon hora? Esther pegged it when she said to Mordechai (Esther 4:16):
ספר אסתר פרק ד
טז) לֵךְ כְּנוֹס אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים
“Go and gather together all the Jews and fast for me three days and three nights …”
The Jews uniting to keep the Torah will undo Haman’s evil decree, because, when we are unified, we are invincible. Mordechai convinced his brethren that this is what is necessary to overturn Haman’s decree. The plan worked like a charm, and right after the fast that Esther had instituted, Hashem set his plan off, having Esther go to the king and plead for her people, and the decree was overturned.
The Men of the Great Assembly accordingly instituted the mitzvah to give charity to the poor and food presents to each other on Purim. Since what brought forth the salvation was the Jewish people joining forces, and fasting, and praying together for Esther’s success in her plans, creating unity must be a take-away of the Purim holiday.
How do we create unity? By giving to each other. Our Sages teach us a counter-intuitive concept: Conventional thinking is that we give to those whom we love as an expression of the love that we have for them. The reality, the rabbis teach us, is just the opposite – we love those to whom we give! In other words, giving is what creates the love in the first place. We love our children because we have given them so much of ourselves. Try it some time. Find someone you don’t particularly like and find a way to help that person. It may take one or two attempts, but the relationship will surely turn for the better.
This is one of the themes of Purim, viz, creating friendships and bonds between Jews. We accomplish this by taking care of the needy and sending presents of food to others.
What a beautiful sight it is on Purim to see so many families, often in costume, crisscrossing the streets of our town delivering משלוח מנות to each other. The pervading feeling of unity in our community in the streets of our neighborhoods is felt for months after Purim. We feel very privileged to be part of it and are the beneficiaries of its impact.