By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
This week, we’ll take a break from our series of 13 principles to answer a question concerning the upcoming holiday of Purim.
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I’ve always wondered why the holiday of Purim was given this name. The “Pur” in the story of Esther was simply the name of the lottery used to decide on what date Haman would enact his decree to destroy the Jews. But why would the entire holiday be named after a lottery of this type?
— Josephine W.
I will answer your question in the classical Jewish way, with a question. Every book of the Tanach, the Jewish Bible, regularly mentions the name of God. How is it that the book of Esther, which relates the miracle of the Jews’ redemption from the Persian-Median exile, doesn’t mention the name of God even once?
One classical commentary, by the Vilna Gaon, answers with the following parable: There once was a king who had only one son. He loved his son, upon whom he showered many gifts. But as the son grew older, so did his haughtiness. In response, members of the king’s court grew to hate him and couldn’t wait for the day when they could “take care” of him.
One day, the son’s haughtiness got the better of him, and he slapped his father, the king, in the face. At that point, the king realized that he must do something drastic. He decided to send him to the dangerous forest for a while, hoping that, when faced with danger, his arrogant son would repent for his folly. The king called his closest aids, commanding them to protect his son while remaining hidden from him.
The day the son was sent into exile, he was accompanied by those who hated him, but who were commanded to protect him. The son faced many dangers and attempts on his life, but noticed that he was mysteriously rescued. In thinking about this, the son knew the only individual who had the ability to protect him was his father; but his father now hated him. But after thinking about it some more, the son realized that his father was, indeed, protecting him.
His father’s love for him was so great, he was keeping him alive and protected, even in the face of his arrogance. The son realized that the banishment to the forest was to teach him a lesson and through that realization, the son’s love and admiration for his father grew. Though it seemed as though the son’s survival was by chance, a coincidence, he realized that his survival was because of his father’s protection. He fully repented, returned home and asked forgiveness.
This parable is similar to the Persian Jews discussed in the Book of Esther. In that story, the Jews were sent into exile into the dangerous forest, surrounded by enemies, because they slapped the Father, the King, in the face. Haman issued a decree to destroy the Jews, and God hid His face to give the chance to repent and see His projection. This is why the name of God doesn’t appear in the book of Esther; God was hidden throughout this story, though His protection was apparent. The Jews, realizing this, repented, then returned to the palace (in this case, Israel) where they could rebuild the Temple. Much like the son in the parable mentioned above, the Jews realized that, while God remained hidden, His protection of his people continued.
Now, in answering your question, the holiday is called “Purim,” named after Haman’s lottery, because it appeared as though that lottery occurred by chance. But the Jews’ redemption occurred when it was realized that there isn’t any such thing as “chance,” rather, the Eternal King has the power to exile us and protect us during that exile, until we can repent and return.
Next Wednesday night and Thursday, when Jews throughout the world read the Book of Esther, we celebrate the miracle of Jewish eternity, brought about by the Eternal King.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.