Purim and the Holy Temple: A tale for our time

Even Yom Kippur, the great Day of Atonement and reconciliation, reflects only a shadow of the spiritual radiance that shines forth on Purim.

Jewish Temple (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jewish Temple
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The holiday of Purim expresses a profound spiritual revelation.
Traditionally it is the day that most succinctly expresses God’s unbounded love for His people Israel.
Even Yom Kippur, the great Day of Atonement and reconciliation, reflects only a shadow of the spiritual radiance that shines forth on Purim, as reflected in the Hebrew name Yom HaKippurim, “a day like Purim.”
Yet Purim is a day of enigma. A major theme of the day is concealment.
Indeed, the custom of masquerading on Purim is a reflection of the concealed yet ever-present Divine providence that connects the dots in the scroll of Esther, the only book of the Bible that does not feature the name of God. And just as the Creator’s identity is obscured throughout the story, the true essence of this festival remains unseen. Ironically, the core concept which lies at the very heart of the Purim story is none other than the struggle for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple.
The Scroll of Esther opens with the lavish banquet that King Ahasuerus held for all his subjects in Shushan.
The Midrash explains the background which led to this party. Mordechai and Esther had attempted to kick-start work on the stalled rebuilding of the Holy Temple, which had been halted by Ahasuerus after his predecessor Cyrus had begrudgingly authorized it.
Now that according to his calculations, the deadline for the prophesied end of the Jews’ exile had come and gone and they had still not been redeemed, Ahasuerus had reason to celebrate. This party was actually held because it looked like the Holy Temple was not going to be built. Without the Holy Temple rebuilt in Jerusalem the king knew his throne was secure. Like many other world leaders, both ancient and contemporary, he realized that this world isn’t big enough for both himself and the presence of God.
Meanwhile, the Persian Jewish exile community was living the life of Riley and was honored to receive invitations to this party. With the lone exception of Mordechai, even the greatest rabbis of the generation were there. These exiles of Judah were not put off by the fact that the whole reason for the celebration was the cessation of work on the rebuilding of the Temple. Perhaps they thought it was to be permitted “for the sake of peace” and thus they sat by and did not protest.
The sages relate that at this “Temple- bashing” theme party, Ahasuerus made a mockery of everything holy to the Jews, by brazenly donning the priestly garments and serving from the sacred Temple vessels. The most severe indictment of the Jewish community’s participation in the celebration comes from the Yalkut Shimoni. In that source we learn that when the Jews saw that Ahasuerus contemptuously donned the garments of the High Priest and served the sumptuous meal from the sacred vessels of the Holy Temple, the Jews all wept profusely – but stayed on and continued to eat and drink, nonetheless. Every day of the 180-day celebration, the king brought out different Temple vessels. When the Jews saw these vessels they lost their appetites. Seeing this, the king came up with an ideal solution: He arranged a separate room for them, enabling them to continue binging without seeing the vessels, freed from the inhibitions caused by guilt.
This “cry and eat” syndrome became the template for Jewish life in exile; we can continue our normal lives, kvelling at the benefits of being loyal subjects of the king while still enjoying the melancholy, hauntingly beautiful nostalgia of mourning for the Holy Temple.
IN TRUTH it was only on account of Israel’s participation in this meal that Haman’s decree was made against them. The decree’s roots were actually Heavenly, on account of Israel’s ignoring their responsibility toward rebuilding the Holy Temple. It was their willing, insensitive participation in that banquet that sealed their fate.
Once Haman’s decree was made, the delight of being included at Ahasuerus’s banquet was suddenly forgotten.
A change began to take place. The Jews realized that all their posturing and political correctness was worthless.
Despite their gesture of loyalty toward the kingdom, the same authority now signed off on their destruction at the hands of their enemies.
The change that began was the awakening of the nation to repentance. But how was this manifested? It was a collective effort by the nation to reconnect with the Holy Temple. The Talmud relates that Mordechai gathered the people and taught them the laws of the Temple offerings. The nation began to return to focus their hearts and minds on its centrality and importance in their lives. According to the Targum Sheni on Esther 4:17, at the time of the fast Israel chose 12,000 cohanim, members of the priestly tribe of Aaron, who sounded shofars to call out to God.
This symbolic act represented the renewal of the status of the cohanim as serving God in the Temple. So too when Mordechai “left the king’s presence clad in royal apparel of turquoise and white with a large gold crown” to announce to his people that they were now permitted to gather and defend themselves, the Aramaic Targum, considered a Divinely-inspired commentary, offers this: “Mordechai wore a crown adorned with a depiction of Jerusalem, and cohanim holding trumpets called out to give him honor.”
Mordechai rallied the people around the goal of their repentance: the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Today, a foreign power rules de facto over the Temple Mount, Judaism’s most sacred place; priceless antiquities of Jewish heritage are wantonly destroyed; Jews are prevented from exercising their right to peaceful prayer.
Are we replaying our role in Ahasuerus’s banquet, complicit in the continuing destruction? Foreign domination and subterfuge, internal wrangling, complicity and conspiracy of silence – these terms best describe the reality of Israel’s relationship with the Temple Mount today. But the rabbis teach that “when the month of Adar arrives, joy increases.” Happily, the people of Israel seem once again poised to reconnect with the Holy Temple. Today there is more interest than ever before in all things related to the Temple; Jewish visits to the Temple Mount conducted in full accordance with halacha are on the increase; for the first time since the 1967 unification of Jerusalem, the Knesset has begun to discuss the issue of Israel’s sovereignty over the Mount. There is a great public awakening to the significance of our people’s connection to our most holy site, long trodden over and long denied us. An entire generation is seeking out the ability to pray peacefully at this site. Our generation is leaving Ahasuerus’ table and returning to the Temple Mount.
The author, a rabbi, is director of the international department of The Temple Institute.