On Monday, Jews across Greater Toronto and around the world will gather to celebrate the holiday of Purim, commemorating the rescue of the Jews of ancient Persia from annihilation.
On the one hand, the Purim story speaks to the power of the individual to shape history. From the impulsive King Ahasuerus and his malicious advisor Haman, to bold Mordecai and brilliant Esther, personalities influence the twists and turns that determine the fate of the Jews.
On the other hand, as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik observes*, Purim has a unique connection to the festival of Hanukkah—and together they have something remarkable to teach us about the collective nature of the Jewish people.
First, the festivals reveal in stunning terms what it means for the Jewish people to have a shared destiny—and with it, shared blessings and dangers. On both festivals, we remember the threat of annihilation, be it physical destruction (Purim) or spiritual-identity destruction (Hanukkah). “Purim and Hanukkah manifest not human aloneness, but the unity of the individual and the community; not the singularity of each Jew, but the common destiny of all Jews,” reflects Rabbi Soloveitchik.
“It was not the individual but the entire community that was the target of hatred, hostility, and persecution. The individual cannot escape the destiny of the collective, and salvation, when it comes, includes the many.”
Second, we learn that, rather than being passive observers, the Jewish people are called upon to actively shape our common future. “Purim and Hanukkah represent man’s (and woman’s) active involvement,” writes Rabbi Soloveitchik. “God chose Mordecai, Esther, and the Maccabees not as onlookers but as actors. He demanded from them sacrificial, heroic action. He told them to plan the strategy and execute it. Man is the fulfiller of God’s will.”
Our shared fate isn’t an abstract idea. It’s an open invitation from the Almighty to use what we have each been given—our personalities and minds, our relationships and positions—to shape the future of the Jewish people.
Third, the connection of these two ideas points the way for how to honour such pivotal moments in our history. Our tradition teaches us that there are four mitzvot (commandments) associated with this special day. On Purim, we read the Book of Esther, send gifts of food to friends and colleagues, give food and tzedakah to the less fortunate among us, and celebrate with a festive meal.
“When triumph was achieved,” says Rabbi Soloveitchik, “God willed man to celebrate a day of love and sympathy, a day of sharing and togetherness.”
On Purim and every day, may we be a community defined by love, sympathy, and togetherness. Because just as Judaism affirms the dignity and potential of the individual, Purim reminds us that we each have a role to play in something far greater—and more enduring—than any one of us.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Purim Sameach,