On Purim Things Are Not As They Appear

This year we celebrate the festival of Purim on March 1st. The story is recounted in the biblical book of Esther and has lessons which are relevant today, several thousand years later. Purim recalls events which took place after the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem. In 586 BCE, the Babylonian empire ransacked the Temple, burnt it and the city of Jerusalem to the ground, and exiled the Jews who were not murdered. Seventy years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Babylonian empire was vanquished by the Persian empire under the leadership of king Cyrus. Cyrus granted permission for the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem and begin the process of rebuilding the Temple. This outstanding act is why Cyrus is honored in the Bible, Isaiah 45:1, with the designation, “God’s anointed.” Unfortunately, the rebuilding of the Temple was temporarily halted by Cyrus and his successor King Achashverosh. Instigated by his evil advisor Haman, Achashverosh went a step further and decreed the total annihilation of the Jewish people. Purim commemorates the annulment of this decree and the victory of the Jews over their enemies. A superficial reading of the events in the book of Esther could lead one to believe that everything transpired in a natural and political manner. Adding credence to this view, Esther is the only book in the Bible that never mentions God’s name.

However, things are not always as they appear.

Through a careful reading of the book of Esther in the Hebrew origin, our sages point out that God was working in a concealed way behind the scenes.  The book’s name hints to this. In addition to memorializing Queen Esther, as the heroine of the Purim story, her name was chosen as the title of the book because it comes from the same Hebrew word “hester” which means concealed. A closer look at one incident provides an eye-opening appreciation of the true nature of the Purim story. Once Esther realizes the severity of the decree against the Jewish people she informs her relative Mordechai to instruct the Jewish people to fast for three days. Esther proclaims that she will also fast for three days and then approach the king unannounced and ask him to annual his decree. As extraordinary as these events may seem, they still appear natural. However, it doesn’t make sense that Esther should fast.  Instead of taking the risk of looking unattractive, because of her three days of fasting, Esther should have done everything possible to beautify herself to find favor in the king’s eyes. Our sages explain that although Esther was taking natural steps to save the Jews, she understood that the ultimate salvation would come from God, elicited by the fasting and repentance of the entire Jewish nation. Today, when events seem to occur without God’s intervention, we can learn from the Purim story that although His ways may be concealed from us, God is involved in all aspects of our life. A fun way to recall this message is to wear Purim costumes which conceal our identity but don’t change who we really are. By acknowledging that God is present in our daily activities, we can free ourselves from a mundane and meaningless life and prepare for the ultimate redemption which is described in Isaiah 40:5 as a time when all mankind will witness that God guides the world and causes everything to exist.