Purim is often thought of only as a holiday of silliness and merrymaking. We dress up in costumes, have some drinks, and celebrate Mordechai and Esther’s victory of over evil Haman. But Purim has a deeper spiritual significance. According to one Midrash, Purim, unlike almost all other Jewish holidays, will still be celebrated in the world to come.
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What is it about Purim – a minor holiday that is a later addition to our Jewish calendar – that makes it worthy of this distinction?
Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, who was the rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn until his death in 1980, explained by offering the following parable:
Two individuals were given an assignment: Identify your friends in the dark of night. One was supplied with a flashlight. He identified his friends by shining light in their faces. The second did not receive a flashlight. He was compelled to identify his friends by listening to their voices and the sound of their walk. The first did a far superior job. Seeing people's faces is far more effective than listening to their distant conversation or walk at night. But the second person developed a unique talent. By learning to train his ears and to listen attentively, he developed a special sensitivity, born of his concentrated listening.
When the sun rose in the morning, the first person extinguished his flashlight. He didn’t need it anymore. The second individual, however, had developed the talent of recognizing people even when he couldn't see them. He had acquired the ability to recognize people in the dark. This talent, which he developed and perfected during that long and dark night, remained with him during the next day, and the next.
The person with the flashlight represents our major holidays. According to Rav Hutner, the main reason behind our holidays is to remind us of God’s presence and guidance throughout history. Over and over again on Passover, Shabbat and our other major holidays, we say “zecher yetziat mitzrayim,” we remind ourselves of the Exodus from Egypt and the many grand miracles that came with it. But, in the redemptive era, God’s presence will be so glaring and obvious that we will no longer require the light provided by our holidays to perceive God’s hand in historical events. It would be like using a flashlight in broad daylight – totally unnecessary.
Purim, however, is the exception. In the Megillah there are no large-scale miracles. God isn’t even mentioned. Rather, the Jews are saved as a result of a number of subtle actions. Queen Vashti happens to be dismissed to make room for Esther. Mordechai happens to overhear Bigtan and Teresh’s plot to assassinate the King. Ahashvarosh happens to have trouble sleeping one night. The story of Purim is full of events that are seemingly unconnected, that are seemingly insignificant, but in the end are all part of the redemptive process. The person without the flashlight cultivated a skill that is not easily developed: the ability to recognize God’s hand even when it is concealed. Small, seemingly insignificant acts are part of the larger process of redemption.
We have all had the experience of only later realizing the great importance of a seemingly unimportant act. I’m here today because of such a small decision. My bubbie was a Holocaust survivor. During the war she was on a train to Krakow from her small town in southern Poland trying to flee from the Nazis. A few minutes before the train arrived at the Krakow station, she said that she suddenly had a bad feeling and heard her father’s voice telling her to get off the train. So she jumped, and ran. She later heard that at the Krakow station the SS raided the train. They arrested all of the Jewish passengers and took them straight to Auschwitz. Without her decision to jump off that train, I wouldn’t be here right now – nor would my mother, or my daughter, or my son.
Is it chance behind these decisions? Fate that causes us to be in the right place at the right time? “No!” says Megillat Esther forcefully. Just because God is not mentioned or seen doesn’t mean that God is not there. Purim helps us cultivate our ability to see God without a flashlight, to recognize God’s hand in the world.
This is the special quality of Purim that makes it worthy of carrying on even in the world to come. It teaches us how to attune ourselves to God’s presence even in the darkness. It demonstrates for us how small, seemingly insignificant acts can make the difference in this world, and in the next one as well.
Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.