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Browse Zemanim: Pourim: Pourim: Historical Background

Contributed by: R. Albert Setton

The Significance of Pourim In order to properly understand the significance of the holiday of Pourim, its historical context must be properly analyzed. The story of Purim takes place after the destruction of the first Beit Hamiqdash, when Am Yisrael was exiled to Bavel. Indeed, Mordechai himself was one of the first people to be exiled from Eretz Yisrael, even prior to the destruction of the Beit Hamiqdash (see Ester 2:5-6). While Am Yisrael were still in exile in Bavel, the Persian empire, under King Daryavesh (Darius the first) overtook Malchut Bavel (the Babylonian empire). His son in-law, Koresh (Cyrus) succeeded his father in-law Darius and actually gave permission to Am Yisrael to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash. However, as recorded in sefer Ezra, most of our nation did not "make aliyah" and go up to Eretz Yisrael to rebuild the second Beit Hamiqdash. Due to lack of participation, the building of the Beit Hamikdash stalled and was neglected. It is in the background of these events in which our story takes place. Achashverosh succeeded Coresh as king of the Persian Empire and according to the midrash officially put a stop to the building of the Beit Hamiqdash (this is how chachamim explain Achashverosh's offer to Esther- "until half the kingdom"- Yerushalayim was in the midst of the empire, and Achashverosh specified that the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash was not under discussion). This was a punishment from Hashem- if Am Yisrael did not care about the Beit Hamikdash, Hashem would not help its rebuilding. As known, in the third year of his reign, Achashverosh made a huge party. The Chachamim (megilah 11b-12a) explain the purpose of the party. After the first Beit Hamikdash was destroyed, Hashem promised to redeem Am Yisrael and return them to Eretz Yisrael at the end of seventy years. According to his calculations, Achashverosh concluded that the seventy years had passed and gone. Hashem had not redeemed his chosen nation, and apparently had given up on them. Achashverosh decided to celebrate using the utensils of the Beit Hamikdash, which were brought from Yerushalayim over seventy years ago. This party, a celebration of the breaking of the special bond between Hashem and the Jewish people, was the one that the Jews of Shushan attended. This signified that even the Jews of the time had given up on them being redeemed. It is interesting to note that according to the gemara, they made sure to drink kosher wine at the party. They would continue to be torah-observant Jews. However, they no longer believed in the national goals of Am Yisrael, that one day they would return to Eretz Yisrael, build a Beit Hamikdash, and declare Hashem's name throughout the world. By attending the feast of Achashverosh, they gave up the ideal of the Jewish Nation. Their attendance at the party was considered by the students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (author of the Zohar) to be the cause of the decree of destruction that they would face in just a short while after. They believed that they could remain individual Jews living among the nations of the world, without the need for any national homeland or unity. Due to the Jews giving up on their special status as the emissaries of Hashem to the rest of the world, they were punished at the hands of the nation of Amalek (Haman was a direct descendant of the Amaleki king Aggag). It is interesting to note that until this point Am Yisrael was never punished at the hands of Amalek throughout their history, excluding the time they were attacked by Amalek in the desert during the time of Moshe Rabbenu. Even the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash was not perpetrated by Amalek. Why specifically now were Am Yisrael punished through Amalek? The same common denominator applies to our story and the time Am Yisrael were attacked by Amalek in the desert- they questioned their relationship with God. Amalek in gematriyah spells HaTeVaH, which means nature. They completely deny the existence of a God and believe the world is run completely by nature. They deny any purpose to the existence of the world. Thus they completely deny the specialness of Am Yisrael in the world, whose role is to dispel such false beliefs, and spread the idea that the world was created by Hashem in order that we may all worship him. The second Am Yisrael question their status as the chosen nation and their role in the world, they are punished by the very nation that says that Am Yisrael is neither not special nor unique: Amalek. Hence specifically at this time Hashem chose to punish Am Yisrael through Amalek. The message that Am Yisrael is a special nation that shares a unique bond with Hashem was reiterated by Mordechai. He told Esther that they Jews would definitely be saved, as they have an eternal covenant with God. This affirmation of the goal of Am Yisrael as a special nation, with a specific task in the world, lead to the teshuvah of Am Yisrael. The gemara explains that Am Yisrael rededicated themselves to four specific mitzvot- torah, yom tov, brit milah, and tefilin. Each one of these mitzvot signify the special connection we have with Hashem. The Torah is Hashem's book that he chose to give only to the Jewish people. On yamim tovim (holidays) we say mekadesh Yisrael Vehazemanim- Hashem sanctifies Am Yisrael, who then sanctify time by declaring when the holidays are. This mitzvah reflects the special nature of Am Yisrael and the way they are able to make the mundane holy (such as making a regular weekday into a special holiday such as Pesach) , an ability that was given only to the Jewish nation. Both the mitzvah of Milah and Tefilin come to signify the specialness of Am Yisrael and the treaty we have with Hashem- we carve it into our skin and wear it on our hearts and minds every day. Am Yisrael reconnected to their roots, and accepted their role as the chosen nation of God. They realized that is was not enough for them to perform the mitzvot, to keep kosher but to live amongst the goyim. We have a greater goal in life, to become a holy nation in Eretz Yisrael, and to spread the word of Hashem throughout the world. We must learn from the lesson of Purim that it is not enough for us to merely be religious Jews in America. As a nation, we must remind ourselves that we have a much greater task in the world than to merely focus on our own individual lives. The Jewish people have a task set out for them by God to be a light to the nations, and spread God's name throughout the world. This goal cannot be completed by us living as individual families and communities. It can only be fulfilled by joining all of Am Yisrael together and forming one nation in Eretz Yisrael, from where we can spread God's name throughout the world. The story of Purim comes to remind us about our greater goal in life as a whole nation. Let us not lose sight of our goal in life and do our best to be whole-hearted members of Am Yisrael, Beeretz Yisrael, and help spread the name of Hashem throughout the world.
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