Author: Jody Berkel
GROW THROUGH THE HOLIDAYS WITH JODY BERKEL: PURIM EDITION
I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES
We all want to a live a life full of joy. And although the Jewish people are called upon to remember tragic events, such as the destruction of the temples on Tisha B’av, by engaging in mourning and introspection, we are told that during the month of Av, when these tragedies occurred, to decrease our joy. We are not asked to eliminate joy altogether, but to take down the joy just a notch, because a Jew’s baseline is joy!
According to Jewish tradition, as soon as the Hebrew month of Adar begins, we are told to increase our joy because the miracle of the Purim story happened in that month. Although the holiday of Purim is celebrated only on the 14th day of the month of Adar, the whole month is identified with greater joy. Purim is so full of joy that its celebration overflows into the entire month—from beginning to end.
But why is the holiday of Purim so uniquely associated with the call to experience joy as opposed to any of the other holidays? What’s so joyful about the miracles of Purim when compared to the miracles of Passover for example? Those were pretty EPIC miracles! Shouldn’t our joy be the same—if not greater—during the month that Passover falls?
Jewish tradition, however, teaches that the miracle of Purim is actually greater than the miracles of Passover. We’re taught that when Moshiach comes, we won’t be celebrating many of our Jewish Holidays, but Purim will be with us forever.
On Purim, we celebrate the salvation of the Jews in the year 357 BCE from Haman’s plot to exterminate all the Jewish men, women and children living in the Persian Empire, which meant all the Jews in the world at that time. However, there appears to be no miraculous divine interventions in the story. There were no supernatural plagues and no splitting of any seas. In fact, God’s name is not even mentioned once in the entire Purim story as recorded in the Book of Esther (Megillat Esther).
One of my favorite Chassidic stories, said in the name of the first Ger Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg-Alter, known as The Chaddushei HaRim, begins to uncover the hidden meaning of this. The young Yitzchak Meir was a child prodigy, a child genius. One day, an older rabbi said to him, “I’ll give you a kopek (the currency of the time) if you can tell me where G-d is?” The young child answered,” I’ll give you two kopeks if you can show me where God isn’t!”
The answer that the young Ger Rebbe gave is the answer to why the miracles of Purim are even greater than the miracles of Pesach. When we understand this, we can experience the greatest joy today and every day of our lives.
To begin with, we need to understand the nature of miracles. The most helpful concept here can be drawn from Jewish mysticism. The kabbalists speak of two kinds of religious experiences: “an awakening from above” and “an awakening from below.”
An awakening from above is an act initiated by God, while an awakening from below is set in motion by human beings. An awakening from above is the kind of event that we all identify as a conventional miracle, such as the plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the manna falling from heaven and water from a rock, etc. were all like this.
An awakening from above, a clear ‘God miracle’, is full of spiritual highs, full of inspiration and awe. But, for all its glory, it has limited impact on human beings. In fact, just three days after the splitting of the Red Sea, the Israelites were already complaining about the bitter water they had to drink. Just 40 days after revelation at Sinai, the Jewish people made the golden calf!
If we’re being honest with ourselves, we know, spiritual highs don’t last very long. These experiences call on nothing from us, other than to be patient, to hope and receive. Rabbi Sacks of blessed memory has said, “An awakening from above changes nature. But it does not change human nature.”
An awakening from below, by contrast, lacks the drama of an awakening from above; it’s not “miraculous” in the explicit sense. It doesn’t change the order of nature so we don’t count it as one of God’s wondrous deeds. But its impact is greater, its effect deeper and longer-lasting. It changes us.
We can see this truth played out in the following famous scene: Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai carrying the two tablets that were inscribed by God himself. Moses sees the Jewish people worshipping the golden calf. He smashes the tablets and returns to beg God to forgive the Jewish people. After 40 days, as a sign of forgiveness, God asks Moses to make a second set of tablets. Moses descends the mountain a second time, but something has changed.
The Torah describes the scene (Ex. 34:29-30):
‘When Moses came down Mt. Sinai with the two tablets of the Testimony in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him.”
Interestingly, Moses’ face was not radiant when he came down with the first set of tablets, the work of God himself! The second tablets were carved by Moses. Though the writing was done by God, they were the result of a partnership between Moses and God. Moses himself was changed as a result of his participation; his face shone.
During the giving of the first tablets, Moses was the passive recipient of God’s gift. In spite of the grandeur of the moment, he was still the same Moses. After the second tablets, Moses had changed. In the words of Rabbi Sacks z”l, “We are changed, not by what we receive, but by what we do.”
This brings us back to Purim. The miracle of the salvation of the Jews from Haman’s plan to exterminate them was initiated through the actions of Mordechai and Esther.
The process of salvation was initiated when Mordechai said the following to Esther (Esther 4:14):
“Do not imagine in your soul that you will be able to escape the Kings palace any more than the rest of the Jews. For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position.”
Esther then understood that she must act; she must do something!
Throughout the megillah we read about a sequence of seemingly unconnected events, enacted through human action: Mordechai doesn’t bow down; the Jews fast and pray; Esther also prays and goes to the King on behalf of her people. They all did what was necessary, without knowing whether they would be successful or not.
While God’s name is not found anywhere in the megillah, at the end something miraculous had occurred! God was there all along. Just as we are always there when we are teaching our children to walk; we hold their hand at the beginning and slowly, slowly we let go, but we are right there with them the whole time.
This brings us back to the story of The Ger Rebbe. When the older rabbi asked the young Yitzchak Meir, “I’ll give you a kopek if you can tell me where God is?” these are the miracles of Passover. The answer he was looking for was,” Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere.” That’s the right answer, Passover is the holiday during which you cannot NOT see God—the plagues, the splitting of the sea, the miracles in the dessert. During Passover we all knew, that God is always with us.
But the Ger Rebbe’s answer, “I’ll give you two kopeks if you can tell me where God isn’t?” Are the miracles of Purim! Even when you don’t see any miracles; even when you think you are totally alone, Purim comes around and teaches us; God is never not with us!
Can you see how the Ger Rebbe’s answer is so much deeper? In the story of Purim, God didn’t hit us over the head with His miracles. He didn’t come down to us revealing Himself in a miracle from above. Instead, salvation came from the actions of Mordechai, Esther and the Jewish people.
Mordechai and Esther did what was required and necessary; they saw the situation in front of them and acted! This is the power of Purim, and the source of true simcha (joy).
Judaism is a religion of action and partnership between human action and the divine. As the late Rabbi Sacks expressed so beautifully,” When what we want to do meets with what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be.”
God created the world for us to grow and to achieve. He wants us to make choices and He empowers us to act.
We are living through Purim right now. There’s a great deal of concealment this year and we are living with a lot of fear, uncertainty and confusion. We feel like things are out of our control. There is not one person who hasn’t been touched by Covid. The funerals, the loss, the financial stress have been huge; there is no denying that. Everyone keeps asking when is this going to end? No one can give an answer.
Is there anything that we can we do? Like Mordechai and Esther, it is our job to reveal the hidden goodness in our lives, to do what’s required and necessary in this situation. This past year has required us to employ different skills than we’ve ever had to use before. Each one of us, in our own way, have had to step up—whether it’s in our own families, in our communities or our places of work. We have all had to do more than we thought we could, and in doing so, we have been transformed.
Each one of us has the opportunity to bring light into a dark situation. We don’t need to wait for a miracle from above. God empowers us to be the hero in our own story, and there is no greater joy in the world than that!