Passover to Purim Mystically Speaking

    March 2011 Purim          
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From Passover To Purim

By Yechezkel Gold

Chronologically, the events we celebrate on Passover took place almost one thousand years before the events we celebrate on Purim. According to the book, Seder Hadorot Hakatzar, the exodus was in the year 2448 after the creation and the Purim miracle occurred in 3405. Nevertheless, because of their proximity, one month apart in the calendar, we tend to link them. Some Rabbis describe a continuum between the miracle and joy of Purim and the celebration of Passover one month later. Those ideas provide a good picture of how we experience the Jewish calendar year.

However, the Jewish year is really set up differently. Confusing as it may appear, the first mishna in Tractate Rosh Hashana states that the year has four New Year days. Without entering all the details, the two most related to our discussion are the first of Tishri which we call Rosh Hashanah, and the first of Nissan, the month in which we celebrate Passover. The first of Tishri, the Day of Judgment for the coming year, also is New Year's day in our reckoning for the reign of non-Jewish kings and for other purposes, such as for various agricultural commandments. Nevertheless, for the Torah, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Succoth are in the seventh month. The Torah proclaims Nissan, though, as the head and first of the year's months for Jews (Exodus 12, 2): "This month for you is the head of the months; it is first for you among the months of the year". We reckon Jewish king's years from the first of Nissan. So Passover on the fifteenth of Nissan is almost at the Torah year's beginning and Purim, in the twelfth month, on the fourteenth (or fifteenth, in Jerusalem, Shushan and some other ancient cities) of Adar, is at the end.

Conceptually, too, Passover is the beginning of the Jewish people. With the exodus we emerged as a nation, no longer only a large extended family in Egyptian servitude. After fifty days God gave us the Torah, the program for finding and living the ultimate truth and perfecting the world. It was given in a way that its truth was obvious. What a wonderful starting point! We celebrate it on Shavuot, fifty days after the beginning of Passover.

Purim, on the other hand, marks the last episode in the Bible. Indeed, the Midrash notes that the name Esther means morning star. The period of the Bible was the time of prophecy, compared to the heavenly stars and constellations. With the events of Purim that historical and spiritual period ended. Accordingly, the sages decided that the next book written about miracles made for our people, the Book of Maccabes, should not be included in the Bible. Purim occurred just before the setting of the heavenly constellations.

The progression of the Jewish year has spiritual meaning as well. Passover followed by counting the Omer leading to Shavuot, the festival of receiving the Torah, is a spiritual beginning. Purim is a spiritual end. The episodes they celebrate tell us much about what mysticism means by a beginning and an end, and this meaning is very different from what we generally understand by these words.

One obvious difference between the miracles of the exodus and that of Purim is the degree to which they were conspicuous. Passover was a time of blatant changes to the normal course of nature, with the ten plagues followed by the parting of the Red Sea, and the great Divine revelation at Mount Sinai. Purim, in contrast, is considered a hidden miracle. Almost everything in the story can be explained as a mere series of coincidences accompanied by deft, dedicated diplomacy and intrigue. God's hand was revealed in the exodus but the events of Purim seem to show the righteous dedication of the Jews more than Divine intervention.

In Hasidic mysticism, the book, Tanya, states that the Bible corresponds to the highest spiritual world, Atzilus. Atzilus has ten sefirot, ten Divine traits that characterize the way God is manifested in the world. They include chochma (omniscience) bina (infinite understanding), chesed (infinite benevolence) gevura (omnipotence) etc. The last of the sefirot is Malchut (Kingdom). On the one hand, this sefira signifies that it is apt and proper for God to be King of the entire creation. On the other hand, Malchut signifies that His subjects accept his reign and undertake to live according to His dictates. In particular, Jews should live according to the Torah.

Though the first nine sefirot denote traits intrinsic to Godliness, the tenth one, Malchut, seems to relate more to people. This is particularly so regarding the aspect of Malchut regarding people's role. In fact, sometimes Malchut is simply referred to as K'nesset Yisrael, i.e. the Congregation of Israel. From that perspective, it is puzzling that Malchut is considered integral to the sefirot of Atzilut. Would it not seem more fitting for it to be part of a less exalted realm?

Purim has many parallels with Malchut. It too comes at the end, and not only of the Bible. The sages stated that because the Jews participated in Ahasuerus' feast and ate and drank from vessels that had been taken from the holy Temple, they forfeited their right to existence. Many peoples disappeared during the course of history, such as the biblical Amonites and Moabites. Indeed, long beforehand the Jews had lost the privilege to special Divine aid accorded to them through the merit of the forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Thus, the Tractate Sabbath 55a reports: "And since when has the merit of the Patriarchs been exhausted? Rav said, Since the days of Hosea the son of Beeri, for it is written, [And now] will I discover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and none shall deliver her out of mine hand.  Samuel said. Since the days of Hazael, for it is said, And Hazael king of Syria oppressed Israel all the days of Jehoahaz;  and it is written, But the Lord was gracious unto them, and had compassion upon them, and had respect unto them, because of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, neither cast he them from his presence until now.  R. Joshua b. Levi said: Since the days of Elijah, for it is said, And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening oblation, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, O Lord, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.  R. Johanan said: Since the days of Hezekiah, for it is said, Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with judgement and with righteousness for henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts shall perform this."

When the Jews sinned by desecrating the holy vessels at Ahasuerus' banquet, they no longer had the Patriarchs' merits to counterbalance their sin. No longer was their existence and position secured as the people chosen to do God's mission. This frightening spiritual fact was known to Mordecai. Spiritually, we had come to the end. Haman and Ahasuerus' decree to annihilate the Jews was the means to manifest this dire spiritual status. Mordecai was determined to find an alternative to the merit of the Patriarchs so as to ensure continuation of the Jewish nation.

The situation was not promising. Without overt Divine assistance like we enjoyed at the beginning of the Jewish people in Egypt due to the Patriarch's merits, how could the Jewish people and everything they represent continue?

Mordecai and Esther acted on blind faith. They had nothing to go on. Esther was an unwilling queen, captive to Ahasuerus. The Jews were disenfranchised and their very existence imperiled by Haman's wicked plan.

Consider this situation for individuals. The natural spirituality bestowed on us from Above has limits. Like merits of the Patriarchs and the obvious miracles celebrated on Passover and Shavuot, our natural, God-given spirituality ties us with God, inspires us, and provides our lives with a general ideal. However, there is a limit. We are free either to choose, elucidate and develop that gift from Heaven, or not to. This point of choice is where the spirituality bestowed from above ends. We have a soul, but it does not extend spontaneously into life. We are barely aware of it.

Now it is up to the individual. The odds of succeeding seem slim. Being really Jewish, really idealistic, really Godly, seems unrealistic. This is the spiritual root of Purim. It was first revealed at the end of the biblical period and its significance is eternal it is true today no less than in the days of Mordecai and Esther.

Purim's position in the year is like that of Malchut among the sefirot. It is the end. Now it is up to us to bring God into the world. Why is Malchut part of the Godly world of Atzilus? Because if we Jews, against all odds, after we forfeited the Patriarch's merits, unilaterally undertake to connect to God and labor to perfect the world, that itself is Godly. More, that is the fruition and completion of Godliness. Thereby, Jews are part of God's manifestation, as the Zohar states: The Jews and the Torah and God are One. They are part of Atzilus. Purim is a veritable spiritual creation ex nihilo.

Purim was also a new beginning. With the fall of Haman and the rise of Mordecai and Esther, the Jews resumed building the Second Temple after it was interrupted through the diplomatic intervention of our enemies. The Second Temple period began thereby. Unlike in the First Temple, though, the Divine Presence did not dwell manifestly in the second. It was a different type of spirituality. Purim leads to our Passover and Shavuot, to the exalted spirituality of Malchut. It also is leading us to our ultimate spiritual future.


from the March 2011 Purim Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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