Purim is, by any account, a strange holiday. Jews dress up in costumes, get shickered to the point that they can’t discern a hero from a villain, and read one of the two books of the Torah where God doesn’t figure in the narrative. One might think that the point of the day is to “eat, drink and be merry” and celebrate the fact that an ancient Jewish heroine outwitted the Persians. It seems like the classic “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat” holiday. But under its surface of masks lies something deeper.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that Purim prepares us for Pesach (Likutey Moharan 2.74). The connection is that Purim is about hidden miracles and Pesach is about revealed miracles. As winter begins to turn to spring around Purim, the powerful life hidden under the cold exterior begins to blossom and rise; around Pesach, spring is in full bloom and the smell of freedom is in the air.
Traditionally on Purim most people dress like characters from the story, as opposed to Batman or Darth Vader. The story of Purim is our story, after all. God’s name is never once mentioned in the Book of Esther because God is behind the whole story, a story of sequential coincidences leading to God’s presence and activity being revealed.
The Purim story has a series of reversals: the Jews go from helpless victims to warriors; Haman goes from powerful to powerless; Mordechai goes from weakness and danger to strength and security.
Esther, of course, whose very name means hidden (hester) goes from entrapped woman whose Jewishness is secret, to free, triumphant, openly Jewish heroine. All of these reversals are about God’s reality breaking into ours.
The message of the story is that God works in hiddenness. Our daily lives seem mundane only when our eyes have become jaded. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said with characteristic beauty in Man is Not Alone: “The ineffable inhabits the magnificent and the common, the grandiose and the tiny facts of reality alike. Some people sense this quality at distant intervals in extraordinary events; others sense it in the ordinary events, in every fold, in every nook, day after day, hour after hour. To them, things are bereft of triteness; to them, being does not mate with nonsense.”
Purim is a celebration of the revelation of God in the overturning of what appears to us to be reality. What seems to be random (pur, a lottery) is shown to be anything but; what seems to be God’s absence is actually his presence. Often the only way for us to see God’s presence is to put aside our own opinions about what is good and what is bad in order to see deeper. Purim nods at this truth with its famous injunction to drink until we can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai – an injunction, by the way, which most rabbis argue is better acknowledged with a symbolic wee drink rather than actually getting sloshed.
Rebbe Nachman’s point is that when we see God’s presence in the mundane details of our lives, then we will be prepared to see God in a way that is not hidden. When we see God’s presence in everything, then we are liberated min ha meitzar, from the narrow places that constrict us and weigh upon us. As Leonard Cohen writes in the song “Born in Chains,” we are “out of Egypt, out of Pharaoh’s dream.”
Matthew Gindin is a writer, lecturer and holistic therapist. As well as teaching holistic medicine, Gindin regularly lectures on topics in Jewish and world spirituality, and has a particular passion for making ancient wisdom traditions relevant in the modern world. His work has been featured on Elephant Journal, the Zen Site and Wisdom Pills, and he blogs at Talis in Wonderland (mgindin.wordpress.com) and Voices (hashkata.com).