What is the Miracle of Purim?
Next Wednesday night and Thursday Jews around the world will gather to read and hear Megilat Esther, the Scroll of Esther. This book of the Tanakh relates events in Jewish history that took place over an 11-year period. How are we to view the occurrences depicted in the Megillah, as natural or as miraculous?
The philosophy of Judaism recognizes two kinds of miracles, נסים: one is an “open miracle,” נס גלוי)) the other is a “hidden miracle,” (נס נסתר). A miracle means “a change in nature.” An “open miracle” can sometimes be a qualitative phenomenon, such as in the case of the death of the firstborn Egyptians; or sometimes an “open miracle” can take a quantitative form as by the plague of locusts.
However, by Purim all the events can be explained in a natural unfolding of an understandable sequence of historical and political maneuverings. The story of Purim includes: a lavish and decadent celebration in the capital city, Shushan, that ends with the execution of the queen; palace intrigue entered around an attempted assassination and coup of the king; anti-Semitic proclamations and edicts culminating in the planned annihilation of all the kingdom’s Jews, “…young and old, children and women, on one day…”( Esther 3:13). That the Jews survived this episode of history can be completely attributed to their political savvy and cunning together with a smattering of good fortune and fortuitous circumstances. Wherein lies the miracle of Purim that we joyfully celebrate?
My teacher and mentor, Rabbi Israel Chait, onetime remarked that the miracle of Purim is expressed by 2 words of the Megilah, “ונהפוך הוא,” “it was turned around,” “it was turned upside down.” Make no mistake, King Achasvieros was an anti-Semite. His elaborate party depicted in the beginning of the Megilah was to demonstrate that Judaism is a false religion and philosophy of life. To prove that Judaism was a made-up religion, he brought out all the Holy Temple’s special utensils to be used at the banquet. He, himself, put on all the vestments of the Kohain Gadol. His actions were designed to show complete contempt and conquest over the Jewish people and their religion. At the end of the Megilah, when the king executed Haman and reversed his previous edict, it was because he saw that Haman, in all his plotting against the Jews, really had his own agenda to take over the throne. It was not because Achashverosh had any love or respect for the Jews.
The Megilah states “…on the very day that the enemies of the Jews expected to gain the upper hand over them, it was turned about.” (Esther:9:1)Allowing the Jews to defend themselves on the day they were marked for extermination, placing Mordecai over the house of Haman, elevating him viceroy to the king was far more than even Mordecai expected. How do we know that? Earlier in the Megilah, when Mordecai beseeches Esther to devise a plan to save the Jews, all he tells her is, “… if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance for the Jews will come from another place.” All Mordecai expected was “relief and deliverance” not the complete “turnabout” that transpired.
The “hidden miracle,” the change in nature that occurred was the extent to which the king, an avowed Jew-hater, went to save and promote the Jews. His actions and this level of salvation was considered, until then, completely out of the realm of his personality. Such a transformation could never occur.
At the end of the Laws of Megilah, the Rambam quotes the Gemorah that in the time of Moshiach, all the other books of the Prophets and Writings will be canceled except for the Megilat Esther. Rather, Megilat Esther will be established as the Torah and Oral Law which will never be cancelled. In other words, we won’t read the others publicly as we do today except for the Torah and Megilat Esther. Purim will always be celebrated, and Jewish law will be observed.
Why is the Megilat Esther the exception? If you look carefully at content of the Megilah, it reveals a fundamental principle of Judaism, a יסוד הדת. In step by step fashion we can analyze how God’s divine providence, השגחת ה’ , is always working, albeit behind the scenes, “hidden” in a way from plain sight, to save the nation of Israel and the existence of Jewish people. Its message is old and current at the same time. In short it is timely, which is why this book of the Bible also has the distinction of being called an אגרת, a letter. A letter is to transmit immediate news. The knowledge that the Jewish nations lives constantly under God’s divine providence should gives us courage and strength no matter the immediate circumstances we face.
Thus, a true understanding and reflection behind the events depicted in the Megilah naturally results in great expressions of joy, gratefulness, and merriment ליהודים היתה אורה ושמחה וששן ויקר ,“For the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor.” All this due only to God’s divine providence over the Jewish people.
Buen Purim, Freilachen Purim, Purim Sameach, Happy Purim,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan