A folk celebration and free will – Purim 5779

The Purim celebrations were, therefore, a folk tradition that retained its folksy character even after it was legislated.

A megillah at the Western Wall (photo credit: WESTERN WALL HERITAGE FOUNDATION)
A megillah at the Western Wall
Megillat Esther, which we read on the evening and then on the morning of Purim, tells the story of a miracle that occurred about 2,300 years ago when the Jewish nation was saved from a satanic plot.
King Achashverosh, which some researchers believe is the Greek translation for the Persian King Xerxes, ruled over the Persian Empire. His adviser Haman became angry with one of the Jewish leaders, Mordechai, after he refused to bow down to Haman. As revenge on Mordechai and his nation, Haman planned “to destroy, kill, and cause to perish” all the Jews of the Persian Empire, in one day.
But the redemption of the Jews was set even before Haman schemed to destroy them. Several years earlier, Mordechai’s niece, Esther, was taken to King Achashverosh’s palace, where the monarch chose her to be his wife, the queen. Ingeniously, and at great risk, Esther managed to thwart Haman’s plan, which was overturned when King Achashverosh commanded to have him hung on the tree he had prepared for Mordechai. In commemoration of this miracle, we celebrate the holiday of Purim with four commandments: reading the megillah, having a joyous and festive meal, giving mishloach manot – gifts of food and drink – and giving charity.
We find a surprising reference to this story in the Babylonian Talmud. In Tractate Shabbat, page 88, there is an in-depth discussion about the revelation on Mount Sinai, and there appears a reference to the story of the Megillah as being parallel to that revelation – the foundational event at which the Jewish nation received the Torah.
Furthermore, it is also claimed there that in the revelation on Mount Sinai, the Jewish nation did not receive the Torah with free will; there was an element of coercion, when the Divine did not leave room for refusal. However, in the story of the Megillah, the Jews received the Torah with complete and total free will and without any coercion. Therefore, conclude the sages of the Talmud, accepting the Torah during the days of Achashverosh was preferable to what occurred at Mount Sinai!
But where does the Megillah hint at receiving the Torah?
On the manifest level of the megillah, we do not find so much as a hint to the Torah and our receiving it. But as we know, Megillat Esther is a book of hidden messages. The manifest level is the first of many others.
ONE OF the people who worked on explaining Megillat Esther was the rabbi of Prague during the second half of the 16th century, Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal of Prague, one of the most important Jewish scholars and philosophers. His book on Megillat Esther was called Or Chadash (New Light) and it indeed shed a new light on deep and hidden layers of the Megillah. In his introduction, the Maharal discussed the Talmudic section we quoted and revealed where receiving the Torah was hinted at in the Megillah.
When the Jewish nation accepted the decision to celebrate the days of Purim, according to the Maharal, this was the expression of a general position regarding all the commandments of the Torah. The commandments of Purim are not written in the Torah, and when the Jewish nation took upon itself to celebrate the holiday, they did so out of free will and love. It was this expression of positive will that can be generalized from the individual to the public. The commandments of Purim did not stand alone, but were additions to the commandments of the Torah, and therefore, accepting them willingly was a renewed commitment to the commandments of the Torah – but this time, out of free will.
Furthermore, toward the end of the Megillah, the way in which the rulings about Purim were accepted by the Jewish nation is described. First, there was a spontaneous celebration in the form of banquets and feasts. Years later, the nation’s leaders, Mordechai and Esther, saw the need to make the holiday official and that decision was accepted.
As we read in the Megillah: “And the Jews took upon themselves what they had commenced to do and what Mordecai had written to them.” (Esther 9, 23)
The repetition in this verse is obvious. The Jews accepting the rulings regarding Purim was a double acceptance. They took upon themselves the folk traditions they had already begun, and they took upon themselves the rulings that Mordechai had written to them. The Purim celebrations were, therefore, a folk tradition that retained its folksy character even after it was legislated. The Jewish nation did not surrender its rights to celebrate as they had done. This is a holiday that was not dictated from the “top down” but was created from the “bottom up.”
The author is Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.