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March 9, 2017 8:00 am

Purim and the Challenge of the Holocaust

avatar by Nathan Lopes Cardozo

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Esther and Mordechai writing the second letter of Purim. Oil on canvas, 1685. Photo: RISD Museum of Art, Rhode Island.

Esther and Mordechai writing the second letter of Purim. Oil on canvas, 1685. Photo: RISD Museum of Art, Rhode Island.

In the midrash on Mishlei, we read the following:

All of the festivals will be nullified in the future [the messianic age], but Purim will never be nullified.

This assertion seems to fly in the face of Jewish tradition, which states categorically that the Jewish festivals mentioned in the Torah, such as Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot will never cease to be celebrated.

Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, in his famous commentary Torah Temimah on Megillat Esther (9:28), explains this contradiction in the following most original manner:

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The miracle of Purim is very different from the miracles mentioned in the Torah. While the latter were overt miracles –such as the ten plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, the revelation at Sinai and the falling of the man (manna) in the desert — the miracle of Purim was covert. Unlike with the miracles narrated in the Torah, no law of nature was ever violated in the Purim story, and the Jews were saved from the hands of Haman harasha (the evil Haman) by seemingly normal historical occurrences…

Covert miracles will never cease to exist, explains the Torah Temimah. In fact, they take place every day. But overt miracles such as the splitting of the Red Sea have come to an end. In light of this, the midrash is not suggesting that the actual festivals mentioned in the Torah will be nullified in future days, since this would contradict Jewish belief. Rather, it is stating that the original reasons for celebrating the festivals, namely overt miracles, will have ceased.

So, one should read the midrash as follows: Overt miracles, which we celebrate on festivals mentioned in the Torah, will no longer occur. But covert miracles such as those celebrated on Purim will never end; they will continue to occur every day of the year. In other words, all the other festivals will still be celebrated to commemorate great historical events in Jewish history, so as to make them relevant and to teach us many lessons for our own lives. Purim, on the other hand, although rooted in a historical event, functions as a constant reminder that the Purim story never ended. We are still living it. The Megillah is open-ended; it was not and will never be completed. Covert miracles still happen.

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner z”l, in his celebrated work Pachad Yitzchak (volume on Purim, chapter 33), uses this idea to explain a highly unusual halachic stipulation related to Purim: During all Torah festivals, the congregation sings “Hallel,” the well-known, classic compilation of specific Psalms. These Psalms praise God for all the great miracles He performed for Israel in biblical times. Why, then, asks the Talmud, do we not sing “Hallel” on Purim? Is there not even more reason to sing these Psalms on the day when God performed the great miracle of rescuing Israel from the hands of Haman?

The Talmud (Masechet Megillah 14a) answers “kriyata zu hallila” — the reading of Megillat Esther is in itself praise. When one reads the story of Esther, one actually fulfills the obligation of singing “Hallel,” because telling this story is the greatest praise to God for having saved the Jews.

Interestingly, one of the most celebrated commentators on the Talmud, Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249-1315), ponders the need to say “Hallel” on Purim when one is unable to read or hear the Megillah. In this case, according to his opinion, one should indeed sing the psalm, since one must thank God for what happened. Rabbi Hutner, however, points out that no other authority agrees with his opinion.

Moreover, one often wonders why the story of Purim is still relevant at all after the Holocaust. Not even a hidden miracle was performed to save the Jews from the hands of Hitler, a greater enemy than Haman. Why continue to praise God for a hidden miracle when it seems that even hidden miracles came to an end with the Holocaust?

This question should be on the mind of every Jew who celebrates Purim, and it is not only the Holocaust that should raise this issue. The Spanish Inquisition; the many pogroms against the Jews; and the various forms of exterminating complete Jewish communities throughout all of Jewish history, in which God’s saving hand was absent, all beg that very question. Shouldn’t these events convince Jews to abolish Purim altogether? How can we continue celebrating Purim when six million Jews, collectively, did not see the hidden hand of God, and were left with no divine intervention? Is celebrating Purim not an affront to all those millions who were tortured and died under the most hideous circumstances?

Hundreds of personal stories describe how Jews risked their lives to rejoice in their Jewishness while facing the Nazis’ atrocities. In the extermination camps, people celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach and even Purim — and they literally had to decide whether to sing “Hallel” after failed attempts to find a Megillah.

What was it that kept them going? Was it just wishful thinking? No. What they realized then, as never before, was the eternity and indestructibility of the Jews. Perpetuity is the very essence of our people. When Rabbi Moshe Friedman of Boyan, a towering personality and great Talmid Chacham in pre-war Poland, was brought to Auschwitz with a transport of deeply religious Jews during Pesach of 1943, he was asked to undress prior to the “shower.” He turned to the Oberscharführer, grasped the lapel of his Nazi jacket and said to him: “You — the most despicable murderers in the world, don’t imagine for one moment that you will succeed in destroying the Jewish people. The Jewish nation will live forever. It will not vanish from the stage of history; instead, you will be erased and disappear.”

It was the famous, slightly antisemitic historian Arnold Toynbee who, with great annoyance, alluded to what history has taught us: any nation that stands up against the Jews will ultimately disappear. Such was the fate of the ancient Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians and the Greeks, etc.

Jews have been an ever-dying people that never died. We live in spite of peril. Our refusal to surrender has turned our story into one long, unending Purim tale. To this day, a large part of the world does not know what to do with us. We make them feel uneasy because we represent something they can’t put their finger on. Jews are sui generis.

More than anything else, it is the existence and survival of the state of Israel that irritates many. Perplexity has morphed into aversion. Where does this small nation, which does not comprise even one percent of the world population, have the chutzpah to play such a crucial role in science, technology and many other areas of human knowledge?

Yet what would the world do without Jews, who are responsible for so many inventions that are vital to the survival of modern society? Great progress and major breakthroughs in the world of medicine, such as the treatment of paralysis, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, etc., are Israeli accomplishments. What about Windows, voicemail and the most advanced anti-terror systems? All Israeli. Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation, and in proportion to its population has the largest number of start-up companies in the world. It is ranked second in the world for venture capital funds. And the list goes on.

Even if, God forbid, the state of Israel would not survive Iran — the Haman of our day — every Jew instinctively knows that the Jewish people will still endure, even without their homeland, and will climb the ladder and surprise the world once again. Purim will never cease.

Which Jew — even secular or atheist — dares to betray the Jewish victims of persecution by not celebrating Purim? That is the ultimate question that all Jews must ask themselves. Not to do so would be a tragic dereliction of duty.

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  • Reb_Yaakov

    Jewish values are what is vital for the survival of modern society, not technological or scientific advances and certainly not entrepreneurialism.

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