Purim – The Festival of Lots
Purim (literally meaning lots) is a remarkably celebratory Jewish holiday in which we commemorate HaShem's saving of the Jews from the persecution of their enemies.
In the 4th century BCE, during the height of the Persian Empire, Jews in the city of Shushan (and Persia at large) were threatened by Haman, a very close advisor to King Ahasuerus. The story unfolds in Megilat Esther as we read of the actions of Mordechai and Esther who bravely and cunningly expose Haman and secure the right for Jews throughout Persia to defend themselves against oppression.
In this holiday we recall the many times throughout history that although the Jews have been persecuted and threatened with annihilation by mighty powers (Egypt, Persia, Babylon, Greece, Rome, etc.), who eventually fell into relative obscurity, the Jewish people still remain to this day! It is through the guarding of the Torah, the heartbeat of HaShem's people, that we maintain our identity and resist the pressures of assimilation. From the Megillah itself, these words of Haman give us an insight into the Jews at the time maintaining their identity:
And Haman said to King Ahasuerus, there is one people, scattered and dispersed among other peoples of your provinces of your kingdom, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king's laws, and it is not in your majesty's interest to tolerate them. (Esther 3:8)
Purim, therefore, is a reminder of HaShem’s protection even in galut (exile) and that it is through guarding Torah that we maintain our identity in the face of resistance. HaShem’s guarding and our guarding go hand-in-hand.
The Mitzvot of Purim
Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar. It is called Purim (lots) because of the irony that the lot that Haman drew for the destruction of the Jews (which fell to the month of Adar (Esther 3:7)) ended up bringing about his own death in this month (Esther 9:22,26).
There are four mitzvot (commandments) associated with Purim. The reading of the Megillah (Book of Esther), Mishlo’ach manot (sending gifts of food), Matanot la’evyonim (giving to the poor), and Se'udat Purim (The festive Purim meal). These mitzvot are derived from Esther 9:22 and are thoroughly discussed in Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 141-142.
The Megillah is chanted in synagogues during Ma'ariv of the evening of Purim and in the morning shacharit. Listening to the Megillah being read fulfills one's obligation of actually reading it him/herself. The Talmud mentions the obligation of becoming so drunk from wine that you cannot discern between "Cursed be Haman" and "Blessed be Mordechai"(Bavli, Megillah 7b). This being quite extreme, the idea is to at least drink more that you usually do to increase joy. The excessive drinking of wine reflects on the miracle of Purim because “The entire miracle of Purim was brought about through wine: Vashti banished at the wine party and Esther took her place; also the episode of Haman’s downfall came about through wine (Kitzer Shulchan Aruch 142:6).”
Gifts of foods to friends and charity to the poor are derived from Esther 9:22 as customs instituted by Mordechai in commemorating Purim. Traditionally prepared foods are gifted to friends and family, but should not detract from the obligation to give generously to the poor (Kitzer Shulchan Aruch 142:1).
It has become traditional to dress in costume on Purim in order to increase joy and merrymaking (Orach Chayim 696:8). Comedic and fun activities are encouraged in keeping with the festive occasion.
A Deeper Look
One of many messianic themes in the Megillah is a concept called mesirut nefesh, the readiness to give your nefesh (Your life, nefesh is literally the lowest soul) for the sake of K'lal Yisrael (the Nation of Israel). Upon examination, there is an interesting echo between the story of Mordechai and Esther and the story of Joseph, Judah, and Benjamin in Genesis 43.
Esther 2:5 states first that Mordechai was a Jew, and then specifies that he was a Benjamite (which extends that Esther was also of Benjamin). In Genesis, Benjamin was the subject of tension between the brothers and their father because Joseph had demanded that they must bring him along if they were to come back to Egypt to buy more grain (Genesis 42:20, 43:1-10).
Esther's words "If I am lost, I will be lost (Esther 4:16)" are remarkably similar to those of Jacob's “If I am to lose (Benjamin), I will lose (him) (Genesis 43:14).”
In Esther's plea to the King on behalf of the Jews she says: "For how can I bear to see the destruction of my people? And how can I bear to see the terrible fate that will befall my kindred? (Esther 8:6)” In Genesis, Judah pleads with Joseph: "How can I bear to go back to my father unless the boy is with me? How can I bear to see evil that will befall my father? (Genesis 44:34)"
In each story, Judah and Esther were faced with the same decision. Will I risk my life for the sake of my family? Will I die for my people? In the Genesis story, it is Judah on behalf of Benjamin. In the Megillah, it is a Benjamite on behalf of the Jewish nation at large. Of course, neither Judah nor Esther died at this moment, but they were prepared and ready to do so for the sake of their family (Genesis 45:7-8).
Messiah Yeshua says "No greater love has one than to give his nefesh for his companions (John 15:13)". Yeshua, by giving his nefesh on behalf of K'lal Yisrael, is the greatest example of mesirut nefesh, indeed the very definition of Mashiach ben-Yosef. Joseph himself was considered as dead by his brothers and father after he was cast into the pit (See Bereshit Rabbah 84:16, Bavli, Berachot 33a), only to then be cast again into prison in Egypt (another metaphor of death) (See Lamentations 3:53-55, Genesis 41:14), but all this was for the sake of Joseph's "resurrection" from the pit and the prison to become second in command to Pharaoh and a mashiach for his family.
The last verse of the Megillah records: "For Mordechai the Jew was second to the king Ahasuerus, he was great among the Jews and found favor with his brothers. He sought good for his people and spoke peacefully (v’dover shalom) to all his offspring (Esther 10:3)." This reminds us of the start of tension between Joseph and his brothers when "they could not speak peacefully to him (v’lo yach’lu dab’ru l’shalom) (Genesis 37:4)". The Megillah goes out of its way to point out this parallel as a contrast, maybe even a tikkun (rectification), upon that earlier hatred between brothers.
The word Shalom, rooted in the word shalem (completeness and wholeness), is best describing Mashiach ben-David's fully established Kingship in Jerusalem. We hasten Messiah's coming by following the example of selflessness set by Joseph, Judah, Moses, Esther, and of course Yeshua himself, and we bring His Kingship through ahavat chinam (unconditional love) toward K’lal Yisrael and the entire world.