Between Purim and Pesach

(This was prepared as a talk for Beth Jacob, Oakland as we mark one year to COVID-19; link to the full event below; talk begins at min13:30).

We are right between Purim and Pesach – seemingly moving from one holiday towards its unrelated next-door neighbor. After all, we know of the connections between the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot; and between Purim and Hanukkah, the two post Torah holidays. But Purim and Pesach? They seem to be in two different holiday “groups”; very close on the calendar, but, their proximity also seems to be kind of a “coincidence” of two complete opposites.

In terms of the calendar, Pesach is the first for the holidays of the year. In Exodus chapter 12 it says, החֹדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים, ראשון הוא לכם לחדשי השנה

“this month is for you the beginning of all months, it’s the new months of the year”. Pesach appears in the very beginning of our Biblical year, while Purim – shows up in the last month of the Biblical calendar.

But, it’s not only where they are situated on the calendar, one at the beginning and the other, at the very end of our year (so much so, that even during a leap year, Purim is pushed to the 2nd Adar!). Consider this: The first holiday we are commanded to keep in the Torah, is Pesach, while Purim, is the very last of the Biblical holidays. In tractate Yoma (29:a), it says: “why was Esther likened to dawn? To tell you that just like dawn is at the end of the night, so too, Esther, is the end of all miracles. And might you ask, what about Hanukkah? Hanukkah is not in the Bible, and Esther is”.

Further: Pesach is a holiday that marks the birth of the People of Israel along with their departure from slavery to freedom. Pesach is “bouncy” and joyful, as expressed in the Song of Songs, the scroll we read during this holiday. It’s like a young couple falling in love. There’s a feeling of spring, skipping and hopping about, of rejuvenation. Purim? Well, it’s life of a more advanced age, after the couple had already seen so much; after the terrible troubles of the 1st Temple’s destruction; after going into exile.

Pesach looks forward: to the end of slavery and the Exodus, to the Giving of the Torah, to the journey, and mostly, to coming home to the Land of Israel. Purim looks back. It remembers, sadly, the Land of Israel, the destruction and the Exile, chanting the lines mentioning that in Megilat Esther to the heart wrenching tune of Eicha, Lamentation. Pesach and Purim are therefore not only on the edge of our calendar but also of our history.

But, as we know, Megilat Esther constantly reveals and conceals, playing with lights and shadows. What a minute ago we thought was obvious, now is hidden only to be highlighted later….

Interestingly, the main occurrences in the Book of Esther, both in terms of the amount of description in the scroll, and in terms of the importance of events, take place during the month of Nisan and even during Pesach itself. In chapter 3:7 we find: “In the first month, that is, the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, pur (“lot”) was cast before Haman concerning every day and every month, [until it fell on] the twelfth month, that is, the month of Adar”.

Chapter 3:12 continues: “On the thirteenth day of the first month (i.e. Nissan), the king’s scribes were summoned and a decree was issued, as Haman directed”…

 That’s the decree to exterminate all the Jews. On that same day, Mordechai and Esther have their conversation (chapter 4) and her instruction, “go gather all the Jews who are in Shushan and fast for me, and do not eat or drink for three days night and day… and Mordecai passed by and did as Esther has commanded him”. The Talmud explains this verse: “that Mordechai spent the first day of Pesach – fasting” (Megillah 10: 1).

The beginning of the turn of events takes place when Esther shows up before Ahasuerus “on the 3rd day” (5:1). Rashi interprets it to be the 3rd day since the runners left with the decree, which would be the 15th of Nissan, the first day of Pesach.

That is also when the first drinking feast takes place, and the night after, is the night the king can’t sleep. The next day, the 16th day of Nissan, the day of the Omer waving (or- lifting), Haman mounts (or- lifts…) Mordecai on the horse (Chapter 6). That evening is the second feast, and at the end of that day, Haman is hung (chapter 7). It’s possible that even giving Haman’s “house” (property) to Esther and his ring to Mordecai, all occurred “on that day” (8:1), during Pesach. This means that a lot of what is going on in the Book of Esther takes between the 13th and 16th of Nisan.

We might wonder, why then don’t we celebrate Purim on Pesach? And the answer is: even though so many things happened in Nissan, Haman’s evil decree was not annulled until the 13th of Adar. I can’t imagine what a year this was for the Jews of King Ahasuerus’s kingdom! unable to fully live their lives, a whole year in suspense, when stores are closed; students can’t go to school, grandparents can’t visit with their grandchildren, travel is banned, and everybody is waiting for the vaccine… a whole year until, once again, people could begin  to resume a semblance of normalcy…. Only then, were the Jews able to declare Adar as the “month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor” (9:22).

And, there’s more: Rav Soloveitchik (Kol Dodi Dofek) describes the special covenant between us and Hashem in Egypt as a covenant of fate (as opposed to the covenant of Sinai, which is that of destiny). “What is the Covenant of Fate? Fate signifies… an existence of compulsion. A strange force merges all individuals into one unit. ‎The ‎individual is subject and subjugated against his will to the national fate/existence, and it ‎is ‎impossible for him to avoid it and be absorbed into a different reality”. This is the covenant described in the midrash as G-d holding the mountain over the people.

The Rav continues: “Even if a Jew ‎reaches the pinnacle of social and political accomplishment, he will ‎not be able to free himself… ‎despite his apparent integration into his non-Jewish environment”. We can think of Joseph who, high as he climbed, insisted on not being left in Egypt even after his death but rather, being buried in the Land of his forefathers. And, of course, of Mordechai too. ‎The Rav further says that “This ‎singular, inexplicable phenomenon of the individual clinging to the community ‎and feeling ‎alienated from the outside world was forged and formed in Egypt”. This means, that the Purim story expresses the covenant that was born in Egypt, only to fulfill the idea of Pesach in its exile version, where one can appreciate it even more than when the People dwell in their Land!

The Covenant of Fate is also expressed in positive categories that stem from the awareness ‎of ‎shared fate, and include shared responsibility, obligation, and – shared kindness, all unique aspects of our people, driven from the covenant of Egypt and each, a pillar of the Purim story.

The whole idea that “even ‎though we may speak a mix of different languages, even if we are citizens of different lands, ‎even ‎if we look different, we have but one fate. When the Jew in the cave is attacked, ‎the ‎security of the Jew standing in the courtyard of the king is jeopardized. “Do not think in your ‎soul ‎that you, from all the Jews [will escape and], shall flee to the palace of the king” ‎‎(Esther ‎‎4:13). Queen Esther robed in majesty and Mordechai wearing sackcloth were situated in ‎the same ‎historical nexus”.

There’s a fantastic midrash-halacha about a two-headed son who wanted to take two shares of his family’s inheritance (based on Menachot 27:a). King Solomon who judged the case said, “Let them pour boiling water on the ‎head of the one, and let us see, if the other screams in pain, ‎then the two are comprised of one person. ‎However, if the second does not feel the suffering of the first, then they are two individuals ‎in one body, and they shall receive two shares of the estate”.‎ Haman says: “there’s one people, scattered and dispersed” (Esther 3:8). It’s true, we are scattered and dispersed, but we are also, one nation: when boiling water is poured over one of our heads, we – usually – scream!

Pesach and Purim are therefore like two pillars of who we are. The fact that Purim is a marking point for Pesach is reflected in the halacha that thirty days before Pesach (which is, Purim) one must begin studying and reviewing the laws of Pesach (Pesachim 6: 2).

And if all that is not enough of a connection, consider this: Moses, the leader who “takes us out” of Egypt, is born on no other month, than Adar. Tradition holds that he was born circumcised, but had he had a bris, it would have been on Purim. Further: Moses was not a commentator and didn’t renew practically anything. There are incidences when he doesn’t know the answer, and needs help figuring those out. He is not a warrior, an inventor or healer… His greatness is his ability to “just” receive the Torah as is. We trust that the Torah is the word of G-d because we trust this ability about Moses. There is a saying (Megilla 15:a) that “anyone who conveys a saying in the name of he who said it, brings redemption to the world”, and the immediate example is “And Esther reported it to the king in the name of Mordecai” (Esther 2:22). Indeed, the Biblical character – or female counterpart – closest to Moses is no other than Esther.

This connection between the redemption of Purim that ends the year and the redemption of Pesach which opens the new year after it, turned the two months of Adar-Nissan into months of joy. Rashi, on the famous saying, “When Adar enters, joy is increases” (Ta’anit 26: 1), sees it as joy that increases on and on, saying that “the days of miracles for Israel were Purim and Pesach.”

It’s been a long year that we’ve spent between Purim & Pesach, Pesach and Purim, and now again, between Purim and Pesach. We’ve had to hold so many conflicting feelings with losing our footing, to grapple with new truths and realities we had no way of preparing before. We had to live the tension between Purim and Pesach constantly.

May the Torah and our continuance learning help make this time just a little easier, a little more meaningful, a little more filled with understanding and joy. If we manage that, we’ll soon be able to say, dayeynu!

Shabbat Shalom!

Connecting Pesach & Purim – Moses costume 🙂

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