PURIM Unmasked

Past Articles:

If you look around the Bet Knesset on Purim night, you will probably agree that the decorum during the megillah reading is almost unparalleled - at least until the kids unleash their ammunition. You see people bent over their megillah meticulously following every word. This is noteworthy, since even for the reading the holy Torah itself on Shabbat, you will inevitably find those same people daydreaming or even dozing off. The question is why. What is so special about the Megillat Esther that it commands such paramount prominence?

The mekubalim (kabbalists) teach that there is a unique spiritual light which is revealed on Purim. They explain that this light actually emanates from the megillah. What is this secret illumination that makes this book so special?

What the Halakha Tells Us

The question becomes bigger when you consider that also in halakha reading the megillah has a rare stature. Consider the following three halakhot:

First, the Gemara in Masechet Megillah (p. 3) states that reading the megillah on Purim overrides even the most holy of services. Even Kohanim in the Bet Hamikdash must interrupt offering sacrifices; Levi’im must leave the stage of their singing; Yisrael’im descend from their post in the Temple to read Megillat Esther. Moreover, the Gemara continues and says that reading the ten chapters of the Purim story even overrides learning Torah! This is indeed surprising.

The Gemara even entertains the possibility that treading Megillat Esther would override a met missva (burying a corpse that has no other caregivers).  Although the conclusion is that megillah does not override met missva, the very thought is astounding. We know that met missva trumps all other misvot. Even someone on his way to bring the korban Pesah (Paschal sacrifice) or the Kohen Gadol (high priest) about to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur must lose the opportunity to do so and tend to the corpse. What is so important about reading the megillah? It seems to be merely a Rabbinic command to read a ten-chapter story.

Second, the Gemara rules, “Hakoreh et hamegillah lemafrea lo yassa - one does not fulfill his obligation if he reads the megillah in reverse order,” i.e. beginning with chapter ten and proceeding to nine, eight, etc. until he concludes with the opening verse. This halakha is somewhat perplexing. Isn’t this obvious? Why would you have thought to perform the missva backwards?

Third, the Gemara states that the Megillat Esther must be written like a sefer Torah, including the parchment, the ink, and rolled on a rod. Why is Megillat Esther the only one of the five megillot to have these requirements?

Incidentally, when I was growing up, my friends and I didn’t have our own megillah. Only certain adults had such a prized possession; my grandfather probably owned one. The rest of us all followed along in a booklet or the paper scrolls we got in school. I’ll never forget how I always wanted a megillah of my own; I knew it was an important book, but who could afford it? When I got married, my rabbi called me and said, “Eliyahu, I have a great megillah for you. It’s small, written by a sofer yareh Shamayim, with the hiddur of the Vilna Gaon to be written like an Iggeret, with twelve lines in each column.” I said, “Okay, Hacham, how much does it cost?” He said, “A thousand dollars.” “A thousand dollars?” I replied. I was just married. Who had a thousand dollars? “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to pass.” Yet he insisted that I take it and pay it off in installments. Every year, I would scrounge for some extra funds to make a payment on that megillah. Do you know how precious it is to me today? Not just because the Hacham offered it to me, but because I worked hard for it. Today, every kid before his Bar Missva gets amegillah, with a case and everything. They don’t even appreciate it. Their megillah is probably nicer than mine, but they take it for granted.

A Few Explanations

The explanation for all these questions begins at the end of the megillah. Esther sends a message to the rabbis of the Sanhedrin, “kitvuni ledorot - let this event be documented for generations.” Meaning, Esther felt that the Purim story was not a regular salvation of the Jews, but that it had special status and should be read every year and even canonized as one of the twenty-four books of the Tanakh. And that is how Megillat Esther came about.

Says the Vilna Gaon: The title of this book, Megillat Esther is actually an oxymoron. It contains an inherent contradiction. The Hebrew word megillat means “to reveal” and “Esther” literally means “to hide.” Which is it? Revealing or hiding?

The Gaon goes on to explain that there are two ways Gd runs the world. The first way is miraculous. He openly intervenes in the events of history. In Yessiat Misrayim, Gd’s hand was obvious. There was no other way to view the plagues, the splitting of the sea, the mann, and what happened at Mount Sinai. With the second way, Gd conceals Himself behind the scenes. The Purim story is the classic example. There you do not find any trace of the supernatural. A secular history professor could teach Megillat Esther in Harvard because the story is plausible. It could have happened naturally. But the same professor would say, “Don’t tell me about Moses putting some bitter stick into bitter water to sweeten it. That’s not rational.”

A Story All Can Relate To

I once visited Windsor castle in London. There you can see the showcases of the kings’ treasures. Actually, I didn’t feel particularly connected to their legacy, as it was not my heritage. But then, the tour guide showed us a room which he said was called the Queen Esther Room. My eyes lit up. “Now you’re talking… tell us more.”  Apparently, one of the British kings was obsessed with the story of the megillah. He was so infatuated that he commissioned his royal artists to depict the entire story on the walls of this chamber. You can see there Mordechai on the horse being led by Haman, the gallows, the whole story from beginning to end. Thus, we see that the story of Megillat Esther speaks even to the non-Jews.

They can relate to it because it seems like a totally natural sequence of unrelated events. The Megillat Esther opens in the third year of Achashverosh’s reign. Afterwards there is nine years of nothing until Haman rises to power. The story stretches over a decade. When you read the megillah, you are under the impression the all the events happened immediately back to back, almost as if all the events were compressed into a half hour television show. However, for those living at the time, it was much harder to connect the dots of these seemingly random events.

It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. You put it together, piece by piece, but you don’t know what the picture is until you finally put in the last piece of the puzzle. Each event on its own, like a single piece of the puzzle, is not earth shattering. It sounds like the news of today: Fickle kings, conspiracy plots, etc. These things happen.

Interestingly, the Vilna Gaon writes that Gd prefers running the world through the second way of orchestrating events, from behind the scenes. He prefers not to intervene with open miracles. Yet every “natural” occurrence is under the direct hand of Gd. As the Ba’al Shem Tov said, even for a leaf that falls off a tree - the place where it lands, face up or face down, was determined from Above. If you’re riding in your car and a piece of hay falls off the truck in front of you-it’s from God. The normal state of the world conceals Gd. The job of the Jewish people is to reveal the concealment. Hence the name - “Megillat Esther.” It is our job to “reveal Gd’s hand from behind the veil of the so called “natural” events of the megillah. Unlike the professor and the king, we look at the Purim story with the lens of emuna, seeing how each event was divinely orchestrated until, finally, in retrospect, we understand that there was a purposeful chain of events perfectly calculated to achieve the domino effect. If any single event would have been missing, the chain would have stopped.

Seeing Gd’s Hand

Now we can understand the halakha not to read the megillah backwards. I might have thought that it was advantageous to start from the end. That way, I am immediately revealing the Divine hand before recounting the natural circumstances that led to the salvation - going from light to dark. No, we are supposed to read it forwards, beginning in the darkness of the concealment, saying, “So what? Why is this relevant?”

Whenever I travel with my family and unexpected events start to happen, I turn to everyone in the car and say, “I want to make an announcement. The hashgacha pratit has begun. The wheels of the Divine plan are in motion. There is no reason to complain. We may not yet know why this is happening. We may never know. But we are sure that there is a good reason.”

Take for example the story of a Holocaust survivor, a baker, who lives in New York. His whole family perished except for him and his little sister. He tells the story how, after losing his parents, he felt responsible for the fate of his little sister. Every day, before he would go to work, he would rebuke her to be careful and stay out of the Nazis’ path. One day, he returned from work, but where was his sister? She was gone. He found out that a couple of SS officers had come and taken her. He was a young kid, but overcome with emotion, he stormed down to the Nazi headquarters, screaming in German, “Where’s my sister?” The commanding officer hears the commotion and comes stomping down, with all his medals and decorations bouncing on his uniform. The soldiers tell him that this little Jew is claiming that we picked his sister up today, and he says he’s not leaving until we release her. The officer looks down at him and says, “When you grow hair on the palms of your hands, that’s when you’ll see your sister.” In other words, you’ll never see her again. The Jewish youth stands there, turns to the Nazi and calmly opens his hand to display a hairy palm. The officer cries out, “Satan! The devil is here!! Get this kid out of here and let the sister go!” They open the door and the sister falls out on him. They make their way back to the ghetto and eventually escape.

What happened? He explained that when he was a child, he burnt his hand and the doctor did a skin graft from a part of his body that grew hair, and eventually, he had a hairy palm. He said that his whole life, he was bothered why Gd would do this to him. “Why do I have to be a freak?” His palm was such an embarrassment. “Now I understand! It was all to save my sister.”

Getting to See the Whole Picture

The Chafetz Chaim said that because he merited to live a long life, he was able to see things come about full circle. Most people didn’t understand why things happened to Mr. So-and-so. But he was able to see how, through the course of the years, things fit into place. This broad perspective was one of the advantages of long life. He was able to tie the knot on many episodes that looked very perplexing to younger people. That is the same underlying principle of Megillat Esther.

Rabbi Shlomo Kluger said a hiddush that is very dear to me   The Rabbis tell us that when the angels saw the body of Rabbi Akiva being tortured to death, they complained to Gd, “Is this the reward for Torah?” The Creator responds to them, “If you want, I’ll turn the world back to tohu vavohu (primordial chaos),” meaning, if you want to understand this tragedy, I’ll have to revert the world back to its original chaos.” Rabbi Kluger asks how would that explain anything to the angels, and he gave a mashal (parable): There was a king who went to the royal tailor and gave him the finest fabrics and luxurious golden threads to fashion him a new royal robe. The tailor performed his duty to perfection and presented the new garment to the king. Now there were a lot of court tailors who were jealous of this fellow, so they went to the king and told him, “Yes, he made a nice suit, but he didn’t use all the materials. He kept some for himself to sell. He’s a thief.” The king hastily summoned the tailor with the accusation. “Is it true?” he bellowed. “I paid you all this money and this is what you do!?” The tailor responded, “There’s only one way I can prove to you that my hands are clean and that I fully utilized all the raw material.” “How?” asked the king. “I can take apart the robe and show you every string and button and fabric.” That’s what Gd was telling the angels. “If you want to make sense of Rabbi Akiva’s suffering, I can show you the answer, but I would have to unravel the whole world from the beginning of time to show you that every piece was in the right place leading to the final perfect outcome.”

This story, as well as the story of Megillat Esther is the story of our lives. That is why Esther insisted it be part of Tanakh. It is the lens through which we understand the inner workings of our own stories. We don’t live with the open miracles recorded in the Torah, so we need training to see the hidden hand of Heaven in all our life events. Because we can relate to Megillat Esther even more than the sefer Torah, we pay such meticulous attention to its reading and its missva overrides almost any other. That is also why it is written like a sefer Torah.

Bring Your Sunglasses

So, when you go to Bet Knesset to hear the megillah, remember to bring your sunglasses with you - not as a costume, but because of the tremendous light that emanates from the megillah as soon as we open it. It is the light of seeing our lives in His light.