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The Physical Festival

Each year, on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar, we celebrate the festival of Purim. We fulfill the observances of the day as they have been practiced for 2,350 years: we read the megillah, the "Scroll of Esther," in which the story of Purim is transcribed; we send gifts of food to our friends and increase in charity to the poor; we partake of a festive meal, replete with food, drink and unbridled joy.

Originally, however, there were two different conceptions of how the miracle of Purim should be commemorated, propagated by the two heroes and founders of Purim, Mordechai and Esther.

Our sages tell us that it was Mordechai's desire that Purim should be a full-fledged Yom Tov, a day of sabbatical rest like the first and last days of Passover and Sukkot. [1]

On the other hand, while both Mordechai and Esther instituted the observances of mishloach manot (sending of food-portions), mattanot la'evyonim (gifts to the poor), and mishteh v'simchah (feasting and rejoicing), the concept of the megillah came solely from Esther. It was she who desired that the story of Purim should be written in a scroll and included among the twenty-four books of the "written Torah" (the "Bible"), and that this written account should be read aloud each Purim. [2]

The different Purims envisioned by Mordechai and Esther reflect their respective roles in the events of the time.

It was Mordechai who personified the faith of his people with his refusal to bow to Haman; it was he who identified the source of Israel's vulnerability to Haman's decree, who called upon the Jewish people to repent and return to G-d, who led them in three days of fasting and prayer, who gathered thousands of Jewish children and studied Torah with them in order to arouse the mercy of Heaven.

Esther, on the other hand, was the one who risked her life by approaching King Achashverosh on the matter, who provoked the king's wrath against Haman and prevailed upon him to empower the Jewish people to defend themselves against their enemies.

In other words, Mordechai was the soul of Purim - the one who rectified the spiritual state of his people and summoned forth the divine salvation - while Esther was its body, the one who manipulated the physical events through which the salvation came about.

Thus, Mordechai envisioned Purim as a spiritual Yom Tov, a day on which the Jew eschews all creative involvement with the material world, while Esther saw it as a day that is very much part of the physical reality.

This is also why it was Esther who insisted that the story of Purim be written down, and read aloud each Purim, while Mordechai felt that it was enough that it be "remembered and observed" [3] when the events of the day are commemorated by a series of observances, as is the case with the other festivals.

To Mordechai, it was enough that the Jews of future generations be reminded of the miracle when they observe the rituals of Purim, whereas Esther felt that the events should be perpetuated not only as thoughts in the consciousness of Israel but also in the tactual form of written and verbalized words.

The Decision

When the observances of Purim were institutionalized by the Sanhedrin [4] on the first anniversary of the miracle, it was Esther's vision that prevailed. The Purim we observe today is Esther's physical Purim rather than Mordechai's spiritual model.

Indeed, the section of the Torah devoted to the story of Purim is called "The Book of Esther" - not "The Book of Mordechai" or "The Book of Mordechai and Esther," or even "The Book of Esther and Mordechai." Purim has been decisively established as Esther's story, Esther's miracle, Esther's festival. For Purim is the festival of the Jewish body.

Mordechai, too, recognized this when, together with Esther, he instituted a series of decidedly physical observances for Purim: gifts of food and money, and joy achieved through feasting and drinking.

On the most basic level, this is due to the fact that "the decree was to destroy and kill the bodies of the Jewish people... not their souls (as, for example, was the endeavor of the Greeks at the time of Chanukah)... thus, the salvation is commemorated by physical means...." [5]

Also, the physicality of Purim reflects the "natural" form of the miracle it commemorates. No seas split on Purim, no oil yielded eight times its potential light, no divine voice issued from a flaming mountain.

To the perfunctory observer, the events of Purim do not appear miraculous at all, but a series of fortunate coincidences. Indeed, the name of G-d is not once mentioned in the Book of Esther (!), an absence fully consistent with its "story line" of a palace intrigue involving an evil minister, a beautiful queen and a fickle king.

While other festivals celebrate G-d's supra-natural interventions in history for the sake of His people, Purim extols the hand of G-d concealed within the natural world, the divine providence implicit within even the most mundane workings of the physical reality.

A Matter of Being

On a deeper level, the physical nature of Purim is at the heart of its unique contribution to the relationship between G-d and Israel.

Common wisdom has it that spirit is superior to matter. The physical is finite and temporal, while the spiritual is not bounded by time and space; the physical is inert, the spiritual vibrant and transcending. Yet the physical body relates to the divine truth in a way that is beyond the scope of the loftiest spiritual reality.

The soul of the human being was forged in the "image of G-d." [6] Its qualities and virtues - its intelligence, its compassion, its sense of beauty and harmony - are divine qualities, divine attributes reflected in the human spirit. But these divine "qualities" are wholly extraneous to the divine essence. To say that G-d is wise, compassionate or harmonious is to refer to what is but a most superficial aspect of His being.

There is, however, one element of G-d's creation that reflects His quintessential being: the physical reality.

The physical object is - unequivocally and definitively. "I am," it proclaims, "and my being is wholly defined by my own existence." Ostensibly, this makes the physical the greatest concealment of the divine truth, the most blatant denial of the axiom, "There is none else beside Him." [7] But it is precisely for this reason that, in all of creation, the physical object is also the most poignant expression of the divine being.

In the physical object we have a model for absolute existence. Indeed, it is only as an analogue of its Creator's being that it can possess this quality, which, in essence, is the exclusive prerogative of the Divine.

Our calendar is replete with spiritual avenues of relationship with G-d: the experience of freedom on Passover, the reliving of the revelation at Sinai on Shavuot, the imperial awe of Rosh Hashanah, the teshuvah of Yom Kippur, the sublime joy of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, the subtle light of Chanukah.

But once a year we access a dimension of the relationship that no spiritual experience can capture. On Purim, it is our very physicality that affirms our commitment to G-d, expressing the truth that the definitive being of our bodies is but a reflection of the absolute being of G-d. [8]

Based on the Rebbe's talks on Purim 5724 (1964), and on other occasions [9]

Footnotes: 

1. Talmud, Megillah 5b; Torah Ohr, Esther 100a. 
2. Thus, in Esther 9:32 we read that "The decree of Esther was established concerning the words of this Purim, and they were written in a scroll," while the aforementioned institutions of "festivity and joy, sending food-portions to one's friends and gifts to the poor" (ibid., v. 22) are described as "what has been established for [the Jewish people] by Mordechai the Jew and Queen Esther" (v. 31). See also Talmud, Megillah 7a: "Esther wrote to the sages: "Establish me (the reading of my story - Rashi) for all generations... Write me down (as a book in Torah -Rashi) for all generations...." 
3. Esther 9:28. 
4. Council of seventy-one sages that was the supreme legal and judicial authority. 
5. Levush Mordechai, Orach Chaim 670:2. 
6. Genesis 1:27. 
7. Deuteronomy 4:35. 
8. According to the teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidism, the spiritual is the "male" element of creation while the physical is its "female" aspect. Thus Mordechai relates to the spiritual or "masculine" constituent of Purim, while Esther is identified with its physical or "feminine" dimension. 
9. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XVI, pp. 352-358.

 

 


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