Ask the Rabbi
What is the meaning of Purim and how is it observed?
The King of Persia, Xerxes, chose a beautiful young woman named Esther to be his queen, unaware that she was Jewish. Esther hears from Mordecai, her uncle, that the King has entrusted the fate of Persian Jews to Haman, one of his advisers. Haman hates the Jews, and issues an order that they be killed.
At great risk to her own life, Esther reveals that she is Jewish and pleads with the King to save her people. He agrees to do so, and gives the evil Haman the death sentence Haman himself had hoped to give the Jews.
Observing Purim in synagogue and home
On Purim day itself we have a festive meal and share our joy with others by giving gifts to friends and the poor, since our joy is completed by sharing that joy with others. The origin of these customs is the biblical passage instructing Jews to "observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor" (Esther 9:22).
Purim's many themes
Purim also reminds us of our human frailty and vulnerability. We see how close all the Jews in the Persian Empire came to being wiped out overnight at the whim of a foolish, capricious leader. Jews are particularly reminded of the precariousness of their condition. Yet, Purim also affirms that while oppressors come and go, God's promise and covenant with his people, Israel, is everlasting. The Jews of the Persian Empire, after all, were saved, reminding us that God never deserts His people.
One of the underlying themes of Purim is the mysterious way that God acts in the world. The rescue of the Persian Jews appears to have taken place entirely because of Esther's initiative, without any divine guidance. The name of God, in fact, does not even appear in the entire book of Esther! But, although hidden, God was present in every action and in every event that led to the Jews’ being rescued. He worked through people like Esther (the name, by the way, means "hidden" or "concealed" appropriate when you consider how Esther had to hide her Jewish identity). She and Mordecai were the human instruments of God’s power and salvation.
Purim and miracles
While almost everyone would agree events falling into the first category are miracles, many would not recognize those in the second category as miraculous. But this depends on your perspective. One person, for instance, might attribute one of Israel’s military victories to better training, better technology, better morale, etc. Another person, while recognizing the importance of these things, might claim that the victory is properly credited to God, who acted through man and natural phenomena. To the second person, who recognizes life’s miracles, life itself is a miracle!
What Purim reaffirms to Christians and Jews alike is the fact that the everyday order is infused with God's presence and is under His control. It reaffirms that God’s hand is indeed at work in human history. Renewing our belief in a God who acts in history and continues to perform miracles is one of the most fundamental affirmations we can make. And knowing we believe in a God of miracles is indeed cause for celebration at Purim or any time of year!