Pesach is the holiday on which we celebrate the open miracles that HaShem did for the Jewish people in Egypt to take them from slavery to freedom. Purim, on the other hand, is when we celebrate HaShem’s hidden hand in saving the Jewish people from Haman’s death decree. There were no frogs, lice, wild animals, darkness, or death of the first born. No seas were split, and no hailstones rained down on Haman. But the miracle resulting in the saving of the Jews, when studied from afar and contemplating the sequence of events, how each step unfolded and fell into place like clockwork, reveals the clearly evident hand of HaShem in every detail.
This is one reason why Purim is so meaningful to us and constitutes a celebration that touches us so deeply. In our current situation, here in 2020, we understand that although we do not see HaShem openly performing miracles to redeem us to take us out of our long Exile, He is, nevertheless, behind the scenes, orchestrating the complete redemption. When Mashiach finally comes, we will look back and see openly the invisible steps that HaShem used to bring the redemption.
So why is the holiday that celebrates HaShem’s hidden hand over the events of our nation and our lives called Purim? “פּוּרִים” means “lotteries”, the name given to it by the Megilah’s authors, Mordechai and Esther.
“עַל כֵּן קָרְאוּ לַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה פוּרִים עַל שֵׁם הַפּוּר”
“Therefore, these days are called Purim, because of the פּוּר (“Pur”) the lottery that was done.”
Megilat Esther 9:6
This verse refers to the method through which Haman chose the date that he would kill the Jews. He was looking for a lucky day, and, to find it, he used the luck of the draw, a lottery.
“בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן הוּא חֹדֶשׁ נִיסָן בִּשְׁנַת שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ הִפִּיל פּוּר הוּא הַגּוֹרָל לִפְנֵי הָמָן מִיּוֹם לְיוֹם וּמֵחֹדֶשׁ לְחֹדֶשׁ שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר הוּא חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר”
“In the first month, Nisan, the twelfth year of King Achashverosh’s reign, he made a lottery, from day to day and from month to month, and it fell on the twelfth month, Adar.
Megilat Esther 3:7
The book Divrei Yitzchak writes that Haman conducted the lottery by rolling dice similar to ours. A die’s six sides have the numbers 1-6 on them in dots. The opposite sides of a die always add up to seven Thus, six is opposite one; five is opposite two, and four is opposite three. He used three dice and rolled them for each month of the year, starting with the first month, Nisan. (Tishrei, the month in which Rosh HaShanah falls, is really the seventh month.) Nothing significant occurred until the month of Adar, when the numbers on the faces of the dice came out to: 1-3-3, the numerical value of “אֲגַג”: Agag, Haman’s great grandfather, the king of Amalek in the times of King Saul. The sides opposite those numbers are: 6-4-4, the numerical value of “דָּוִד”: David, symbolizing to Haman that in the month of Adar he would be on top and the Jews would be on the bottom.
Now on a roll, Haman conducted a similar dice roll regarding the zodiac sign of the month. Nothing significant turned up until the month of Adar, when the dice’s configuration was 5-4-3, “הַדָּג” – the numerical value for “the fish,” which Haman saw as a sign that he would succeed because fish eat other fish. The numbers opposite those are: 2-3-4, which spell “בגד”: “rebelled”. Haman once again saw this as a favorable sign, since this meant that the Jews had rebelled against HaShem such that destroying them would be a piece of Hamentashen.
He did the same to choose the day of the month, and 3-3-1 came up again on the Thirteenth Day of Adar. This would be his lucky day, the day that he would destroy all the Jews.
This is all interesting stuff, but why name the holiday for this seeming obscure fact? What is so significant about Haman having used a lottery to decide the day on which he would destroy the Jewish people?
A lottery is a very poor way to decide anything. A person unable to choose between two job offers decides that he will flip a coin; heads it’s this job and tails it’s that one. Although the coin flip will indeed render a decision for him, the result is purely arbitrary; neither rhyme nor reason suggests why the one “chosen” is the better job. But it will just have to do, for this is what the coin decided. Would it not make more sense to sit down with a pen and paper and list both options’ pros and cons to decide based on the job that, on the whole, has the better options?
Yet the Torah itself twice used a lottery to decide a matter.
On Yom Kippur, two identical goats were brought to the Holy Temple, one offered on the altar as a sacrifice, and the other killed by being thrown off a cliff. What decided which would go where? A lottery. Two identical pieces of wood, which had “להשם“ – For HaShem written on one, andלַעֲזָאזֵל ” ” – the cliff written on the other, were placed in a box. The two goats stood opposite the High Priest, one to the right and one to the left. The High Priest would reach both his hands into the box and pull out the two pieces of wood. He would place the piece of wood in his right hand on the goat opposite that hand, and the piece in his left hand would be placed on the goat on his left. What was written on the wood determined the fate of each goat.
The Torah’s other use of a lottery was to allocate the Land of Israel to the Twelve Tribes. The names of the tribes were written on twelve pieces of parchment, and the twelve parcels of land on twelve other pieces. All twenty-four were placed in a vessel, and each tribe’s leader would pull out two pieces. One would have the name of his tribe and the other would have the parcel of land that was allocated to his tribe. In addition, the lot would miraculously actually announce, “I am the parcel of land assigned to Tribe X.”
These lotteries in the Torah, of course, are not to figure out which goat and tribe are the “lucky” ones; rather, the process is to ascertain HaShem’s will, who reveals His will to the High Priest through the impartial draw of the lot. To one who realizes that HaShem controls everything, a lottery is not luck; it is HaShem’s will. Each tribe thus knew, with no doubt, that it had the exact parcel of land that HaShem had earmarked for it. There could be no arguing or jealousy.
A man once secretly (and illegally) switched his lottery ticket with one that belonged to a person whom he thought had better luck. He was right and the other man won the lottery with the switched ticket. When the switcher realized that the other man won with his ticket, he owned up to what he had done and took the other fellow to the rabbi to demand his winnings. The rabbi explained, “It’s not the ticket that wins the lottery, it’s the person. He would have won no matter which ticket he had.”
This is how a Jew thinks. Amalek, Haman’s ancestor, the very first nation to attack us, on the other hand, looks at things the exact opposite way. There is no HaShem! Nothing comes from HaShem and is planned or designed to be a certain way, it’s all coincidence, pure luck!
The verse informs us (Deuteronomy 25:18):
“אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ”
“That he happened upon you on the way.”
This is Amalek’s essence: everything is coincidence; there is no HaShem. Amalek saw the entire Exodus from Egypt as one lucky occurrence for the Jews after another, which happened by the by, along the way. The freaks of nature all happened at the right times, and the lucky Jews exploited them to their advantage. Indeed, just when the fleeing Jews needed to cross the Reed Sea in the face of the pursuing Egyptians, the tide conveniently went out, exposing the ground, and they got through on dry land. The Egyptians weren’t so lucky and were drowned by the returning waves. If everything is coincidence, that scenario makes perfect sense.
That was Haman’s mindset as well. After he made the gallows to hang Mordechai and was in the courtyard of the king in the middle of the night, the king, who just happened to be unable to sleep and who just happened to be read the chronicles regarding Mordechai having earlier saved his life, asked Haman what should be done to the one whom the king wishes to honor. Thinking that the king was referring to him, Haman gave the king a whole list of pompous honorifics – dressing the individual in the kings royal robes, and parading him around town on the kings royal horse. And when Haman then had to bestow that honor upon his arch enemy Mordechai, and march him through the streets proclaiming his glory, Haman still didn’t get it. When he recounted the situation to his wife and family, he was sure to stress, “what happened,” the list of coincidences that just happened to happen to him.
Amalek’s influence is apparent in our world today as well. A substantial number of people believe that the human being is the product of millions of lucky biological and physical coincidences. Despite the chances of such a thing happening being infinitesimal (—if that big), since HaShem is not an option, as preposterous as it is, they sincerely believe that luck and chance are the only source of life on this planet.
This is the essence of our challenge as Jews in this materialistic world. On the one hand, we comprehend intellectually that HaShem runs the world. But on the other, we see important officials seemingly determining the fate of millions of people with their decisions. It sure looks like they are in control. It is difficult to internalize the reality that these important officials are really puppets in HaShem’s hands.
The Jews of the Megilah recognized that the Creator of the world was the Author of their personal story, and this brought forth the miracle of their salvation.
Achashverosh made a lavish, over-the-top, party and invited Shushan’s Jewish denizens to participate. His goal was to trip them up and cause them to sin. He provided the finest kosher food with strict rabbinic supervision along with kosher wine. The vessels of the Holy Temple were used for the party, and there were some other undesirable elements there as well to encourage inappropriate behavior.
Mordechai and the other great rabbis of the time told the Jewish people not to attend the party as it is improper for a Jewish person to be there. Besides, how could they attend a party where the vessels of the Holy Temple were being disgraced?
“If we boycott the party,” the people countered, “The king is going to be very upset at us and kill us! How can we not go?” Mordechai responded, “If it is the right thing not to go, no negative consequences will come out if it. HaShem will not punish you for doing what is right.” Thinking they knew better, the invitees went to the party, where they were compromised.
Nine years later, Haman had enacted a law that everyone must bow down to him. Mordechai, refusing to bow down, angered the mighty Haman. The people accused Mordechai of “endangering the whole Jewish people by inciting Haman! Since he is a person, it is not idol worship, and to save your life you are permitted to bow down to him!” Mordechai responded, “I descend from the tribe of Binyamin, who was not born yet when Yaakov and his sons bowed down to Esav. Since my grandfather Binyamin did not bow down to Esav, I am not allowed to bow down to his descendant. Once again, nothing bad will result from my doing what I am obligated to do.”
Sure enough, exactly what the people claimed would happen, happened. Haman drew up plans to exterminate the entire Jewish people.
The people came back to Mordechai and said to him, “We told you so! See what you have done!?”
Mordechai replied, “This has nothing to do with me. I am doing what I am supposed to do, and HaShem does not punish for doing the right thing. This is coming from the sin that you committed nine years ago by going to the party. This decree is in response to that!” Mordechai knew this through prophesy; HaShem had told him. The test of the people was to see if they would accept Mordechai’s guidance.
“Are you silly, Mordechai!? Don’t you see how angry Haman gets when you don’t bow down to him? He did this because of you!!!”
Mordechai responded that HaShem runs the world, and where there is no sin, there can be no punishment. This decree is the result of a sin.
If we were in the crowd at that time, what would we have said? “Just open your eyes! It’s as plain as day to see! Mordechai is the problem.”
In the end, the people did listen to Mordechai, who prescribed that the entire Jewish people fast for three days, day and night. This would sufficiently atone for the enjoyment that they derived from the illicit party and would bring forth the salvation.
After the three-day fast, Esther, who had been hesitant to approach the king uninvited, went to Achashverosh, and the rest is history.
Once again, the challenge was to perceive things from the perspective of HaShem running the world, not through our flesh and blood eyes that not only see things very superficially, but can give us the wrong viewpoint altogether.
This is why Esther and Mordechai called the holiday Purim, “Lots”. The name captures the essence of Purim’s message. For Haman and his ilk, everything is chance; it’s the luck of the draw, whatever happens, happens; it is what it is, and they have to deal with it. But, in that framework, it could go either way.
A Jew also has a lottery, one guided by HaShem. In the Purim story, we clearly see how HaShem turned Haman’s lottery into a success for the Jewish people. Indeed, every step that Haman took to destroy us, HaShem turned into a success for us.
- The king’s advisor, Memuchan, who the Midrash identifies as Haman, gave the advice to kill Vashti – This allowed Esther to become the queen.
- Haman planned to kill the Jews on the Thirteenth of Adar – The Jews killed their enemies on this day.
- Haman came to the king to have Mordechai killed – He had to parade Mordechai through the streets calling out his praises.
- Haman prepared the gallows for Mordechai – He was hanged on it himself.
HaShem turned Haman’s ill-intentioned ״פּוּר״, “Pur”, into our festive holiday, Purim!