Purim as Part of the Jewish Year
The three upcoming holidays — Purim, Pesach and Shavuos — have each been compared to holidays in Tishrei.
The Gemara notes that Yom Kippur, or, as the Torah calls it, Yom haKippurim, could be read as “The day which is like Purim”. It is kind of hard to see how the day where one is required to “suppress your nefesh” can be compared to the day where “one is obligated to drink until one can not distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai”. Yet, the Gemara invites such a comparison .
Similarly, many of the laws of matzah and sukkah are derived by comparing Sukkos and Pesach. The grounds for this is the hermeneutical rule of “gezeira shava“, which is usually a comparison of two things described in the Torah by similar terminology. In this case it is the fact that both are on the 15th of their respective months that invites the comparison.
Last, the gemara consistently refers to Shavuos as Atzeres, whereas Shmini Atzeres is qualified as Atzeres HaChag, the Atzeres of Succos.
We can therefor look at the fall yamim tovim, and how they are structured, and learn something about their spring parallels.
Yom Kippur and Shmini Atzeres share a theme. On Yom Kippur we are judged to determine our fate for the next year. On Shmini Atzeres, the rain, and by extension our finances, are decided. (See Taanis 2b, where the “key to rain” is given as the source of all fiscal blessing.) One could think of Shmini Atzeres as a reprisal of the theme introduced by Yom Kippur. Sandwiched between them is Succos, presenting the mirror image of the same idea. Instead of focusing on earning sustenance, on Succos we celebrate those things Hashem already gave us.
By parallel, we see how Pesach and Shavuos present opposite side of the same idea. On Shavuos we focus on assuming the responsibility of getting and keeping the Torah. On Pesach, we celebrate the special providence Hashem gives us as Jews. This would mean that to find the theme to Purim, we should look at how it would fit into the same pattern, how it shares the theme of Shavuos.
“And they [Bnei Yisrael] stood under the mountain [Sinai]” (Shemos 19) — R. Avdimi bar Chama bar Chisa said, “This teaches that Hakadosh Baruch Hu flipped the mountain [Sinai] over them [Bnei Yisrael], like a barrel, and said, ‘If you accept the Torah, good, and if not, there will be your graves.’” R. Acha bar Yaakov said, “This provides a major complaint against the Torah.” Rava said, “Even so, the [whole] generation accepted it in the days of Achashveiros. For it says (Esther 9), “the Jews fulfilled and accepted”, they fulfilled that which they had already accepted.
– Shabbos 88b
What the Jews accepted by force in the desert, was finally accepted willingly. Just as Yom Kippur is the complete judgment, and Shmini Atzeres is only a part, Purim represents the completion of what was started at Shavuos.
Purim and Esther
“Where is Esther in the Torah? (Devarim 31) ‘I will hide in hiding (hasteir astir) My Face’.” (Chullin 139b).
This question is particularly valid since when Esther is introduced in the megillah (2:7) we are told her real name is Haddasah (cf Tr. Megillah 13a). Even further, Esther is the name of a pagan goddess. In all likelihood, like many American Jews today, Esther had two names, a religious name of Haddasah, and a legal name of Esther. This is consistent with the fact that we brought back with us from the same exile month names that are clearly pagan in origin. So why is does the megillah choose the name Esther?
A major theme of Purim is the fact that Hashem’s role is hidden, there are no overt miracles, just a steady string of what looks like fortuitous coincidences. Hashem is never named in the megillah. The Yom Tov is named after the lots Haman threw to choose a day, and ended up choosing a date as far ahead in the year as possible.
The book and the queen are called Esther because it brings to mind a pun, and recalls the promise that Hashem will never abandon us as a punishment, but merely hide.
But what about Purim and its relationship to Shavuos? Didn’t we say that the primary theme should be the acceptance of Torah that started at Shavuos?
Torah in a Mundane World
Purim happened at a critical time in Jewish history. The last people who remembered the miracles of the first Beis haMiqdash were already old and dying. Until Moshiach, we won’t see fire descend from the sky to consume the karbanos, the scarlet wool turn white on Yom Kippur, the Urim veTumim, light up prophetically. The last of the prophets (until the return of Eliyahu) were aged. Tzoraas no longer punished those who spoke lashon hara. But until then, all these miracles occured. And as in seifer Shofetim, the cycle of military threat followed by teshuvah followed by a shofeit and military success followed by contentment followed by sin which in turn motivates Hashem to provide the next military threat. This knowledge that acting badly will definitely get punished is — or at least should have been — compelling.
The Meshech Chokhmah (introduction to Shemos) explains that what the gemara means is that while the threat of punishment for sinning was tangible it was as if the mountain was held over their heads. And even so, the moment they came out from under the mountain, when they are bid to “return to your tents” (Devarim 5:27), they returned to the hum-drum world and that feeling that observance is self-evidence subsided. (In the Meshekh Chokhmah’s thought, free-willed observance is the ultimate purpose of existence. He therefore explains this gemara with a strong interest in explaining that free-will was not compromised.)
Then came Purim, with the appearance of happenstance, of Hester Panim, the Hidden Face. The Jewish people were taught a new way to relate to G-d. And the reaction — “the Jews fulfilled and accepted”. A new level of Torah observance was reached, one of trust and faith instead of miracle and prophecy.