(The following was first published on March 4 on the front page of the Jewish Press.)
The year 5775 is sandwiched between two leap years, each of which contains an extra month of Adar. In those leap years, and despite the fact that most authorities maintain that the “real” Adar is the first one, the holiday of Purim always falls in the second Adar, so that even in a leap year Purim and Pesach are separated by a month.
Why do we always celebrate Purim in such close proximity toPesach? Why must they always be linked in time?
The Talmud (Megillah 6b) explains, in the name of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, that it is “preferable to juxtapose [one] redemption to [the other] redemption.” (The Yerushalmi states unequivocally: in order “to juxtapose [one] redemption to the [other] redemption.”)
In other words, the two redemptions – the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt and the salvation of the Jewish people from the genocidal designs of Haman in the story of Purim – are naturally related and require commemoration within the same period of time.
On the surface, though, the two redemptions could not be more dissimilar. Pesach is a Torah-based holiday whose fundamental observances are rooted in Torah law; Purim is a rabbinic holiday whose laws and customs are grounded in the rabbinic tradition.
Pesach commemorates the establishment of the Jewish people through deliverance from Egyptian bondage at the very beginning of the biblical narrative, forty years before we entered and conquered the land of Israel; the story of Purim comes at the very end of the biblical era while we were ensconced in exile between the eras of the two Batei Mikdash. In the Jewish calendar, Pesach falls in the very first month of Nissan; Purim is celebrated in the very last month of the year.
And there is this most critical distinction between the two holidays: during the redemption of Pesach, the liberation from the slavery of Egypt, the Jewish people were completely passive. Miracles abounded and the Hand of Hashem was open and revealed to all. The few acts that we did – such as the designation and slaughter of the Korban Pesach – were prerequisites for redemption in the sense that they qualified those offering the sacrifice as members of the holy nation about to be redeemed. We departed “in haste,” objects of the national destiny that Hashem fashioned for us, beneficiaries of His “mighty Hand and outstretched Arm.”
By contrast, the redemption of Purim was almost the antithesis of that of Pesach. The Jews of Persia, led by Mordechai and Esther, took control of their own destiny. The miracles that took place were subtle and concealed, hidden within the natural order of politics and statecraft.
The protagonists of the salvation utilized their wisdom, ingenuity, and knowledge of human nature in order to manipulate Haman to his death by execution and King Achashveirosh to reverse – or at least revise – his decree of extermination against the people of Israel. When the day of the decree arrived – Adar 13 – the Jewish people, downtrodden in a persistent exile that seemed like it would never end, rose up in their righteous might to subdue and vanquish their enemies.
It was a role reversal, not only from the forced limitations of exile but especially from the passivity of Pesach. On Pesach – the seventh day – we were told that “Hashem will fight for you, and you will be silent” (Shemot 14:14). On Purim, Hashem remained in the background, with no explicit reference to Him even in the megillah, the chronicle of the account, and the Jewish people seized the moment and the day, defeated our enemies, and prepared the way for the building of the second Beit HaMikdash.
* * * * *
The stories of these redemptions could not be more different. Why, then, did our sages underscore that the celebrations of both festivals had to be contiguous in time?
The people of Israel in Egypt were a nascent nation. We were Hashem’s firstborn but incapable of orchestrating or even sustaining our own existence. We were infants who required the nurturing of a loving Parent. Sunk to the 49th level of impurity, we were barely distinguishable from the pagan nations with whom (and to whom) we were enslaved.
The sojourn in the wilderness reinforced this sense of helplessness and vulnerability. We relied on Hashem directly for our food and water, for our protection from the hostile elements that surrounded us, both human and natural. We survived only by virtue of Hashem’s miracles.
When we entered the land of Israel, the era of open miracles began to recede, and slowly – at times hesitantly and painfully – we took control of our own destiny. We had to sow, plant, reap, harvest, build and develop, and defend the land against an endless series of would-be invaders. The scales of hishtadlut (individual or national striving) tilted on the side of our own efforts, bolstered by our faith in Hashem and our fidelity to His law.
In the land of Israel we began to live natural lives, implementing the full complement of Torah law that pertains to every area of life. There were constant reminders of Hashem’s governance of our national lives – especially when sin precipitated a protracted period of conquest (several centuries, in fact), temporary military setbacks, and even times of extended foreign occupation that always ended with a return to Torah observance.
Despite the vicissitudes in our fortunes occasioned by the varying levels of commitment to Torah and mitzvot, we had indeed embarked on a new era in which we were primarily responsible for our destiny and realized – to inconsistent degrees – that our residence in and possession of the land of Israel were utterly dependent on our spiritual commitment.
Nevertheless, the age of open miracles of the Egyptian experience, coupled with the passivity of that redemption, was a distant memory – not a practical guide for modern life but a catalyst for self-determination and independence.
The terrible blow of the churban, the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, stunned the Jewish people. They were hastily turned into helpless refugees, humbled, degraded, persecuted, and homeless. And rather than arouse themselves, seek to eliminate the exile, and return home in accordance with the revealed prophecies, they became complacent and soon embedded themselves in the Babylonian and then Persian exiles.
The story of Purim was a wake-up call that exile is meant as a punishment – a temporary punishment – and that Hashem’s plans for His people find their fulfillment only in the land of Israel.
But something else was required to extricate ourselves from the Persian morass and threat of extermination from a mad Persian dictator (strange how things never change): a desire to seize our destiny and take the initiative in bringing about the salvation.
For sure, Mordechai (one of the local leaders of the Jewish people and a member of the Sanhedrin) was perceived as an alarmist who was exaggerating the threat. Others blamed him for the rupture in good relations that (they assumed) had heretofore existed between the Jews and the host country because he had criticized the Jews who attended the king’s banquet and refused to kowtow to his mercurial minister.
They chose not to see – even this never changes – that the crisis was orchestrated by Hashem in order to elicit from His people repentance, prayer, and increased Torah observance. What was unique about this episode in Jewish history was that, as the sages put it, the arousal came from below.
As such, it would be fair to say that Pesach and Purim reflect two different models of salvation that are possible – the redemption that comes from Above in which our participation is negligible, and the redemption that comes from below, from our own resourcefulness, without which redemption would not come, or, at least, would come in a different way according to Hashem’s will. Thus, when the season of redemption comes upon us every spring, we have before us these two archetypes of redemption.
That analysis, though, omits one crucial factor: that the era of open miracles is behind us and was only meant to be part of the early development of our fledgling nation.
“And I will descend to rescue them from Egypt…”(Shemot 3:8). Divine miracles are a “descent,” a compromise, an intrusion in the laws of nature that Hashem created and with which He governs His world. Passivity was necessary to effect the Exodus from Egypt – a people long mired in slavery cannot be expected to act as free men capable of vanquishing the world’s most powerful empire – but passivity, submissiveness, compliance and reliance on others can never be the foundation of an independent nation, and it certainly cannot ensure that freedom to pursue one’s national destiny can be preserved. For that, our nation has to be strong – strong-willed, strong-minded, strong in its military capacity, and, above all, strong in its values, national character, and connection to Hashem.
* * * * *
In effect, the progression in the Jewish calendar from Pesach to Purim mirrors the progression in our historical development. We began as dependents of Hashem, His first-born and special creation, and we were sustained directly from His hand. But in the land of Israel and thenceforth we became responsible for our own destiny. That does not mean, chas v’shalom, that Hashem is now uninvolved; it does mean that His miracles are hidden and His Providence more subtle.
Sometimes we can see it up close but more often it is possible in retrospect – especially how a browbeaten, demoralized, and exploited people rose up from the ashes, revivified its desiccated bones, and unexpectedly – dare I say miraculously – recreated its national life after a gap of nineteen centuries, an act without precedent in history and unforeseeable to anyone who was not immersed in the ancient vision of the prophets of Israel.
The Hand of Hashem remains visible to anyone who wonders how we were able to survive in the inhospitable climates of one exile after another – and how our immediate ancestors were able to spearhead a renaissance of Jewish national life by confronting the world’s empires and overcoming their objections (even temporarily) to Jewish statehood.
In exile, we remain in the salvific mode of Purim, in which we are the actors and wherein we succeed when we follow the blueprint for statecraft, nation-building, and self-defense delineated for us in the Torah, the words of the Prophets, and the Talmud. Truth be told, the temptation to return to the reactive approach of Pesach is always alluring, especially now. The dangers are that pervasive and the hope for redemption that remote. We cannot let that happen.
With Jew hatred on the rise across the world; with communities in fear and Jews concealing their identities lest they be attacked in the street; with Israel and world Jewry targets of fanatical Muslims who yearn for supremacy over the Jews and elimination of the Jewish state; with the Western world, especially including the United States, unsure of its path and reluctant to embark on a global campaign to eliminate the jihadi threat before it acquires the capability to cause even greater harm; and with this generation’s Persians obsessed with acquiring the weaponry to carry out their ancestor Haman’s final solution, it is very tempting to want to revert to Pesach mode.
We should lose that temptation, which, in any event, has never worked out well for us in the exile. All of history, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has written, is “a movement from acts done by God for the sake of human beings to acts done by human beings for the sake of God.” It is a story of the progression from the redemption of Pesach to the redemption of Purim. Our generation is both blessed with capabilities and uniquely placed to move Jewish and world history to its majestic culmination.
This still begs the question: if Jewish history is a progression from the redemptive modality of Pesach to that of Purim, then why must “[one] redemption be juxtaposed to the [other] redemption”? It should be enough to celebrate Purim, the redemption of our time!
The answer is that, indeed, in the future redemption “the end of our subjugation to the nations [i.e., the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty] will be primary and the exodus from Egypt secondary” (Masechet Berachot 12b). But the problems of the world will be so enormous and the depth of the brutality and evil so extraordinary that divine intervention will be necessary.
“As in the days when you left Egypt, I will show you wonders” (Michah 7:15). The era of open miracles will again dawn, just likePesach. If we do our share with determination and without fear, we will be worthy of eliciting the Divine response that will bring about the complete redemption in our days. “In Nissan we were redeemed and in Nissan we will be redeemed” (Rosh Hashanah 11b).