World of the Sages: Purim forever

Purim is a celebration of a victory over those who sought to destroy each and every one of us.

Our sages discuss whether there is an obligation to recall the Exodus from Egypt in the evenings by reciting the third paragraph of Shema (M. Brachot 1:5). The argument turns on the interpretation of the verse: "That you may remember the day when you came out of Egypt, all the days of your life" (Deuteronomy 16:3). According to one opinion - that of Ben Zoma - the phrase "the days of your life" teaches us that the Exodus must be recalled during daytime, while the additional "all" comes to include the evenings. Thus the Exodus must be mentioned in the evening by adding the third paragraph of Shema. A second opinion, held by the majority of sages, interprets the verse differently. The phrase "the days of your life" refers to our current existence, while the seemingly superfluous "all" comes to add the messianic era. Thus the Exodus will be recalled even in messianic times. While at first glance it appears that the discussion is a question of biblical interpretation, namely what should be derived from the word "all" in the phrase "all the days of your life." The ensuing talmudic discussion, however, paints the issue in different colors (B. Brachot 12b-13a). After hearing the opinion of the sages, Ben Zoma challenged them: Do you really think the Exodus will be part of our narrative in the messianic era? Buttressing his contention, Ben Zoma cited a biblical verse: "Behold, days are coming, says God, when people will no longer take oaths by saying, 'By God who brought the children of Israel up from the land of Egypt'; rather [they will say] 'By God who brought the offspring of the house of Israel from the land of the north and from all the lands wherein He dispersed them'" (Jeremiah 23:7-8). The sages responded: The Exodus from Egypt will not be totally excised from our narrative. Rather, the messianic redemption from the current exile will be of primary importance, while the Exodus from Egypt will be secondary to it. The sages added a parable to demonstrate the change: A person who was traveling by road was confronted by a wolf and saved. He went about relating the story of his salvation from the wolf. Later a lion confronted him and again he was saved. From here on he would tell of the incident with the lion. Finally he encountered a snake, and was fortunate enough to be saved again. The person forgot about the first two encounters and would only tell of his salvation from the snake. The first two encounters remained; they were merely overshadowed by the final tribulation. Following this opinion, later authorities added that the eternal nature of the Torah dictates that no festival will be entirely canceled; the centrality and focus of the commemoration, however, will be changed. Thus the issue, it appears, is not just one of biblical exegesis. The conflicting opinions parallel differing visions of our narrative in the messianic era: Will the Exodus be part of our collective memory albeit secondary to the latest salvation, or perhaps our historical perception will be totally recast? Elsewhere in rabbinic literature the question of which festivals will be celebrated in messianic times is discussed (Midrash Mishlei 9:2). They cite the biblical verse: "And these days should be remembered and observed in each and every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and these days of Purim should not depart from amongst the Jews nor the memorial of them perish from their descendants" (Esther 9:28). The all-encompassing descriptions in this verse prompted the sages to declare that while all the festivals will no longer be celebrated in messianic times, Purim will never be canceled. A further opinion is cited whereby not only Purim, but also the Day of Atonement - Yom Ki-Purim, the day that is like Purim - will also remain part of the Jewish calendar. Here too a biblical proof text is offered: "And this [referring to Yom Kippur] will be an everlasting statute for you, to atone for the children of Israel for all their sins, once a year" (Leviticus 16:34). The Day of Atonement is a cleansing opportunity for our souls; it does not commemorate an event in Jewish history and thus is significantly different from the other festivals. Why, however, will the messianic redemption replace the Exodus in our collective memories, so much so that Pessah as we know it may not be celebrated, yet Purim will uniquely retain its place on the Jewish calendar? Perhaps we could suggest a difference between the biblically mandated festivals whose status will change in the messianic era, as opposed to the matchless status of the Purim commemoration. All the festivals are connected to the journey from slavery in Egypt to independence in the Land of Israel: Pessah celebrates the actual Exodus from Egypt and crossing the Reed Sea, thus escaping the clutches of the Egyptians; Shavuot commemorates the subsequent giving of the Torah at Sinai, a crucial event in our voyage to becoming a nation; Succot recalls the divine protection granted as we wandered in the desert on the way to our homeland, the Land of Israel. Purim, however, marks a different type of event: Purim is a celebration of a victory over those who sought to destroy each and every one of us, of a time when the Almighty was so hidden that salvation seemed impossible. While the challenges we face in our day are in many ways incomparable, not that long ago there were those who sought to destroy each and every one of us. Certainly we find ourselves longing for revelation of divine presence. We yearn for a time, when our existence - physical and spiritual - will not be threatened. As we await the messianic era, we dream of a day when we can maximize our spiritual potential, live our lives with no looming tragedy, and most importantly be conscious of the Almighty's presence in our lives. The Purim festivities salute the very salvation for which we pine; it is for this reason that Purim will be with us forever. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.