01 March 2012

The Megillah Will Never Be Completed!

Purim and its Irrelevance
by Rabbi Dr Nathan Lopes Cardozo

In a remarkable Midrash on Mishle, chapter 9, we read the following:

"While all the other festivals will be discontinued, the festival of Purim will never be suspended."

This assertion seems to fly in the face of Jewish Tradition, which states categorically that the Jewish festivals mentioned in the Torah, such as Pesach, Shavuoth and Succoth, will never cease to be celebrated. This is mentioned by the Talmud on several occasions: "The Mitzvoth (which would include the festivals) of the Torah will never be nullified, not even in the future days (the messianic age)." (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Hilchoth Megillah 3:18) (1)

Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, in his famous commentary Torah Temima on Megillath Esther (9:28), explains this contradiction, in the name of his father Rabbi Yechiel Michel Halevi Epstein, in the following most original manner:

The miracle of Purim is very different from the miracles mentioned in the Torah. While the latter were overt miracles, such as the ten plaques in Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, the revelation at Sinai and the falling of the man (manna) in the desert, the miracle of Purim was hidden. Unlike with the miracles narrated in the Torah, no law of nature was ever violated in the Purim story, and the Jews were saved from the hands of Haman harasha (Haman the evil) by seemingly normal historical occurrences. Had we lived in those days we would have noticed nothing unusual, and many secularists would have explained the redemption of the Jews in Persia as the logical outcome of a series of natural and coincidental events. Only retroactively, when looking back at the story, would we have been astonished by all the incidents, their unusual sequence, and the seemingly unrelated and insignificant human acts which led to the complete redemption of the Jews during the time of Achashverosh's reign. The discovery that all these events actually concealed a miracle could only be made after the fact.

Such miracles will never cease to exist, explains the Torah Temima. In fact, they take place every day. But overt miracles, such as the splitting of the Red Sea, have come to an end. In light of this, the Midrash on Mishle is not suggesting that the actual festivals mentioned in the Torah will be nullified in future days, since this would contradict Jewish belief. Rather, it is stating that the original reasons for celebrating the festivals, namely overt miracles, have ceased.

So, one should read the Midrash as follows: Overt miracles, which we celebrate on festivals mentioned in the Torah, no longer occur. But miracles such as those celebrated on Purim will never be suspended; they continue to occur every day of the year. In other words, all the other festivals will still be celebrated to commemorate great historical events in Jewish history, events to be remembered and relived in the imagination of man so as to make them relevant and teach us many lessons for our own lives. Purim, on the other hand, although rooted in a historical event of many years ago, functions as a constant reminder that the Purim story never ended. We are still living the Purim story.

The Megillah is open-ended; it was and will never be completed!

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner z.l., in his celebrated work Pachad Yitzchak (volume on Purim, chapter 33), uses this idea to explain a highly unusual halachic stipulation related to Purim. During all Torah festivals, the congregation sings Hallel, the well-known classical compilation of specific Psalms. These Psalms praise God for all the great miracles He performed for Israel in biblical times, on occasions for which these festivals were later established. Why, then, asks the Talmud, do we not sing Hallel on Purim? Is there not even more reason to sing these Psalms on the day when God performed the great miracle of rescuing Israel from the hands of Haman? The Talmud answers that Keriyata zu hi hillula - the reading of Megillath Esther is in itself Hallel. When one reads the story of Esther, one actually fulfills the obligation of singing Hallel, because telling this story is itself the greatest praise to God for having saved the Jews. Reading the story awakens in us a feeling of unsurpassed thankfulness and a deep appreciation of the miracle of Jewish survival against all odds.

Interestingly, one of the most celebrated Talmud commentators, Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249-1316), ponders the need to say Hallel on Purim when one is unable to read or hear the Megillah. In this case, according to his opinion, one should indeed sing Hallel, since one needs to thank God for what happened. Rabbi Hutner, however, points out that no other authority agrees with this opinion. They all rule that even if one is unable to read the Megillah, he should still not sing Hallel.

Rabbi Hutner explains this ruling in a most remarkable way, based on our earlier explanation. The psalms in Hallel speak about overt miracles and praise God for His revealed marvels such as those related in the Torah. Hallel intentionally does not include praise to God for hidden miracles, since those must be praised in a hidden way so as to remind the worshipper that such miracles occur on a daily basis. This is the reason why on Purim one reads Megillath Esther and does not recite Hallel. Megillath Esther is the story of a hidden miracle, and through the reading of this story in front of a congregation God receives praise in the appropriate way, in a subtle and hidden manner. After all, it is not God who needs praise but man who needs to praise; he must therefore do it in a way that corresponds to the actual miracle. He has to realize what kind of miracle took or takes place. Singing Hallel instead would be missing the point.

Moreover, one often wonders why the story of Purim is still relevant at all after the Holocaust. Not even a hidden miracle was performed to save the Jews from the hands of Hitler, a greater enemy than Haman. Why continue to praise God for a hidden miracle when it seems that even hidden miracles came to an end with the Holocaust? This question should be on the mind of every Jew who celebrates Purim. But it is not only the Holocaust that should raise this issue. The Spanish Inquisition, the many pogroms, and the various forms of exterminating complete Jewish communities throughout all of Jewish history, in which God's saving hand was absent, begs that very question. Should these events not convince Jews to abolish Purim altogether? History has proven Purim to be irrelevant and even offensive. How can we continue celebrating Purim when six million Jews, collectively, did not see the hidden hand of God and were left with no divine intervention? Is celebrating Purim not an affront to all those millions who were tortured and died under the most hideous circumstances?

Hundreds of personal stories describe how Jews risked their lives to rejoice in their Jewishness while facing the Nazis' atrocities. In the extermination camps they celebrated Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Pesach and even Purim, and they literally had to decide whether to sing Hallel after failed attempts to find a megillah. What was it that kept them going? Was it just wishful thinking? What they realized then, as never before, was the eternity and indestructibility of the Jews. Perpetuity is the very essence of the Jews. When Rabbi Moshe Friedman of Boyan, a towering personality and great Talmid Chacham in pre-war Poland, was brought to Auschwitz with a transport of deeply religious Jews, during Pesach 1944, he was asked to undress prior to the "shower." He turned to the Oberscharf├╝hrer, grasped the lapel of his Nazi jacket and said to him: "You, the most despicable murderers in the world, just do not imagine that you will succeed in destroying the Jewish people. The Jewish people will live forever. It will not disappear from the stage of history but instead you will be erased and disappear." (2)

It was indeed the famous, slightly anti-Semitic historian Arnold Toynbee who, with great annoyance, alluded to what history has taught us: any nation that will stand up against the Jews will ultimately disappear. Such was the fate of the ancient Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians and the Greeks, and such may yet be the fate of the Germans. (3)

Jews have been an ever-dying people that never died. They have experienced a continuous resurrection like that of the dried bones in the Book of Yechezkel (chapter 37: 1-14). This has become the sine qua non of every Jew. It is the mystery of the hidden miracle of survival in the face of overwhelming destruction. True, Amalek was the F├╝hrer, and Haman prevailed, but ultimately they were defeated. We live in spite of peril. Our refusal to surrender has turned our story into one long, unending Purim tale.

To this day, a large part of the world does not know what to do with us. We make them feel uneasy because we represent something they can't put their fingers on. Jews are sui generis. Above all, it is the existence and survival of the State of Israel that irritates many. The rules of history predicted that the Jews would die a definite and final death; instead we have become the greatest success story in all of modern history. Perplexity morphed into aversion. Where does this small nation, which does not comprise even one percentage of mankind, have the chutzpah to play such a crucial role in science, technology, and many other areas of human knowledge?

What would the world do without the Jews who are responsible for so many inventions that are crucial to the survival of the modern world? Great progress and major breakthroughs in the world of medicine, such as the treatment of paralysis, depression, Alzheimer's disease and DNA breakdown, are Israeli accomplishments. What about Windows, voice mail, and the most advanced anti-terror systems? Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation, and in proportion to its population has the largest number of start-up companies in the world. It is ranked second in the world for venture capital funds. And the list goes on.

Even if, God forbid, the State of Israel would not survive Ahmadinejad - the Haman of our day - every Jew instinctively knows that the Jewish people will endure, even without their homeland, and will climb the ladder and surprise the world once again. Purim will never cease.

"As the camp commander took a number of young Gerer Chassidim to be put to death, one, Israel Eisenberg, asked for permission to say a few words to his friends. I stood opposite them and heard every word. .... He got hold of the hands of another bahur (yeshiva student) and started singing. They were calling to each other: The most important thing.. let us rejoice. They all began to sing. And to dance as if a fire had been lit within them. Their sidelocks, which till then were hidden under their hat, they now pulled out and let them hang down their face. They paid no attention to what was going on around them. They were dancing and singing. And I thought I would lose my senses... that young people should go to their death as one goes to dance! Thus dancing, they jumped in the pit as a rain of bullets was pouring down on them." (4)

Which Jew, even secular or atheist, dares to betray these young people by not celebrating Purim? Which Jew dares to ignore Judaism, making himself guilty of spiritual bankruptcy in the face of these fearless Chassidim? This is the ultimate question that every Jew must ask himself. Not to do so would be a tragic dereliction of duty.

1. See my booklet, The Torah as Gods Mind: A Kabbalistic Look into the Pentateuch, Jerusalem, Bep-Ron Publications, 1988, for a completely different interpretation.
2. See Eliezer Berkovits, With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Deathcamps, New York-London, Sanhedrin Press, 1979, pp.110-111.
3. Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, 10 volumes, 1934-61.
4. Eliezer Berkovits, ibid, pp. 111-112, as told by a Kapo in the Plaszow camp.


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