By Rabbi Nachum Aaron Kutnowski
(AJNews) Purim is a Jewish holiday celebrated with gifts to friends and the needy, of masquerades and noisemakers. It is filled with a unique joy, but it also has a deeper and more profound side to it.
The Zohar states: “It is called Purim because of Yom Kippurim… (Zohar 57b:4)”. This explanation of the Zohar comes from isolating the prefix of the word Kippurim – the Hebrew letter Kaf – which translates to “like Purim”. The Jewish holiday of repentance and abstinence is contrasted with the Jewish holiday of fun. How are we to understand this?
There is a Talmudic discussion that can help lend clarity on the subject:
Rava, the Rabbi, said, “In the days of Achashveirosh, the Jews re-accepted the Torah” (Tractate Shabbat, Talmud Bavli 88a).
Earlier in the Talmudic text, it speaks out that the Jewish nation had accepted the Torah originally at Mount Sinai. This statement of Rava informs us that they accepted it again in the time of Esther and Mordechai. The question is what distinction was there between these two acceptances of the Torah?
When Moshe first brought down the two stone tablets from Har Sinai, he was met with the sin of the golden calf and broke them. Several weeks later, on Yom Kippur, the Jewish people finally received the second set. The backdrop to this acceptance was sin, which made Yom Kippur a day of judgment and repentance.
The backdrop to Haman’s plot against the Jews was also of an idolatrous nature. A Talmudic discussion informs us of the following: The students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai asked him: “Why were the Jews of Esther’s time deserving of annihilation?” Rabbi Shimon said to them: “Why do you think?” They first suggested: “It is because they joined in Achashveirosh’s meal.”
Rabbi Shimon responded: “If so, only the Jews of Shushan should have been threatened, and those in the rest of the world should not have been included.” They said to him: “So, why do you think?” He said to them: “It is because they bowed before the idol made by Nevuchadnetzar, the Babylonian king who had destroyed the first Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.” The students asked: “Then why did Hashem forgive them?” He replied: “They did not really worship the idol but pretended to do so only for appearances.” (Tractate Megillah, Talmud Bavli 12a)
In this instance, the idolatrous action was of a lesser degree, lacking the hearts of the Jew.
The merriment of Purim is recognizing an evolution from Yom Kippur to Purim. When the Jews sinned by the golden calf, this was a sin rooted in the heart. It had significant ramifications, and we repent yearly to mark the day. By Purim, the heart and soul of the Jewish people stayed untarnished and showed a significant improvement in the Jewish nation.
One can erroneously read the biblical narrative as a series of failures by the Jewish people. The story of Megillat Esther serves as a reminder that we are capable of great things, and that we should never lose hope in our ability to improve. So, let us be inspired by the bravery and determination of Esther and Mordechai, and let us celebrate every step we take towards becoming the best versions of ourselves.
May you all have a joyous Purim,
Rabbi Nachum Aaron Kutnowski is the Head of Judaic Studies at Halpern Akiva Academy.