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On Purim and Yom Ha-Kippurim

High Holidays
Symbols and Rituals

Our Sages said: “All festivals will be annulled, except for the days of Purim, as it is written: ‘And these days of Purim will not be abolished among the Jews’ (Book of Esther 9:28). Rabbi Eliezer said: Also Yom Kippur will last forever, as it is written: ‘And this shall be for you an everlasting law’ (Leviticus 16:34)” [Midrash on Proverbs, 9:2.].

What is obviously common to both holidays is the word ‘purim’ in their names. Jewish tradition is founded on words. The nation of Israel entered into a covenant called Brit Milah (milah = word) with God; the Rabbis issued Halakhic rulings based on word games and combinations that to an outsider would seem fantastic. For example, one of the most common Halakhic methods of arriving at a ruling is based on analogy by common term. Many central laws of Judaism, such as the requirement for a quorum for matters concerning sanctity, are based on a comparison of two identical or similar words found in different places in the Torah. The Rabbis understood that not all would accept the authority of language, hence they stated: “The method of ruling by analogy by common term is dictated by Moses at Sinai and many precepts in Torah are based on it” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesahim 66). Indeed, language is the tool through which a thing is transformed from latent to overt – from inside a person, through his lips, outwards. Thus the Rabbis perceived Hebrew, the language of the Torah and of God, to be the world’s foundation. For God created the world, that is, realized the potential, by speaking (“And He said, … and it was…”), and He spoke, of course, in Hebrew.

The remarkable literal similarity between the two holidays, Purim and Yom Kippur, is sufficient to generate reams of drashot(sermons) on the meaning of Purim. In case one is tempted to chalk up the similarity of names to coincidence, I will attempt to prove a much deeper connection.

The Book of Esther is a strange, surprising and problematic Biblical book. It is entirely covert, containing no mention of God, redemption, the Landof Israel, the Temple, or any other element that recalls other stories of victory and salvation. The book is paradoxically called a megilla (from the word galui, or revealed) followed by the name Esther (from the word hester, or hidden), and it is precisely this ‘revealing the hidden’ that I will try to achieve here.

A few years ago I was asked to teach a class on Purim to parents at a TALI school. I succumbed to temptation and decided to talk about Haman. Any teaching opportunity provides me with an excuse to learn something new. On this occasion I wanted to better understand the phenomenon that goes by several names: Haman, Amalek, oppressor of the Jews. Out of a love for the Hebrew language, I started with the name Haman, that name that must not be uttered (and which must have been the basis for J.K. Rowling’s invented character Voldemort, whose name must not be said aloud) and which elicits a crescendo of noise throughout the synagogue each time the reader pronounces it.

I conducted a computerized search of the Bible for the nameHaman. I expected to find the wondrous manna that fell in the desert, and I wondered what connection I would discover between the two (for there must be a connection, since they are the same word in the same language). But I was in for a big surprise, as I came upon the first instance of the word haman.

Two women open the Bible, and two others close it, chronologically speaking. The two who open it are Eve and Lilith. Lilith is not explicitly mentioned in the text but the Rabbis identify her in the story of creation as the woman who preceded Eve. They find her concealed in the verse “this time it is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; I will call her Woman because she was taken out of Man” (Genesis 2:23). ‘This time???’  Yes, say the Rabbis, for there was an earlier occasion, and an earlier woman, Lilith (Otzar Hamidrashim, a Midrash collection, Eisenstein, 35:1). In naming Eve, Adam expressed his joy at finding at last the woman, the queen, if you will, to reign by his side over their kingdom. According to this midrash, Lilith resembled man, perhaps too closely, in that she was also created from the earth. But this shared attribute caused great strife between them, and as a result Lilith was expunged from the story, replaced by one more worthy than she.

The two women who close the Bible (again, chronologically, not in the order of the books) are Vashti and Esther. Vashti parallels Lilith, of course. She is also banished. The feminist ethos has us trying to befriend them anew, but in fact they both failed to fulfill their respective missions in their time – one to be a wife to Adam and become the mother of humanity, the other to reign at the side of Ahaseurus fromIndia toEthiopia.

By this logic, Eve must be Esther’s parallel image. Firstly, each successfully replaces her predecessor. ‘This time’ they both manage to meet the challenges confronting them. Secondly, both are orphans, without parents although each has a patron. The patron is part image, part destiny and role in the world, given to them by God. At Creation, this assignment is straightforward, because God is clearly present. In the Megilla, however, God is Hidden and is alluded to only once, precisely at the point at which Esther tries at first to evade her responsibility before totally accepting it: “Mordechai sent back word to Esther: “Don’t imagine that you alone among the Jews will escape to the king’s palace, and that this will save your life.  And who knows? Maybe it was for just such an occasion that you were made queen!” (Book of Esther 4:13-14). Here we glimpse a hint of a Directing Hand, a hidden patron and concealed wisdom that assign a role and destiny to a person.

There is an additional common element to the two women: they both flirt with a demon that threatens to harm, banish and deny: the serpent in Eden and Haman in Shushan. These demonic images are creations of God (for we should never think that the world of Torah contains two supreme powers): the serpent was created during the six days of creation, and Haman was “raised up by King Ahasuerus” (Esther 3:1).  (On another occasion we may delve into the possibility that King Ahasuerus is a metaphor for the King of Kings, as interpreted by those initiated in mysticism.). Both Eve and Esther are directly, and not by chance, associated with these demons; both play with fire and dangerous temptation. The serpent brings to mind connotations of the sexual, wily and evil; so does Haman, who at the story’s climax falls upon Esther’s bed.

Yet another image shared by both stories is the tree. But herein lies the difference between Eve and Esther, and the explanation of the connection between Purim and Yom Kippur.  When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, their eyes were opened to evil in the world, shame was born, the first clothes were sewn, and the business of hiding began. Esther, whose name was actually Hadassah, hides under another name as per Mordechai’s instructions to conceal her true identity (hence the custom of masks on Purim). In the Megilla, good and evil are key words. The word ‘good’ is used repeatedly in the context of Ahasuerus and Mordechai, and Haman is labeled ‘the persecutor, the enemy, the evil one.’

The difference between the two women is that Eve plucks the fruit from the tree, whereas Esther has evil Haman hanged from the tree, the very tree that was meant by Haman to be the goodMordechai’s gallows: “’There’s also a fifty-cubit-high gallows in Haman’s house that Haman made for Mordechai, who saved the king.’ Said the king, ‘Hang him on it.’” (Esther 7:9).

Finally we arrive at the discovery of the origin of the word Haman,which makes its first appearance in Genesis 3:11-13. God challenges Adam, asking, “‘Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten of the (in Hebrew, ‘Hamin’) tree, whereof I commanded you that you should not eat?’ And the man said: ‘The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.’”

It seems that there is a strong connection between Haman and the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Haman symbolizes feelings of shame and inferiority. When we first meet him, he is rather small, and it is the King who raises him up and enlarges him. This does not satisfy him, for he demands that all must bow down to him (i.e., make themselves smaller). When Mordechai refuses to do so, Haman is distressed, because he is obsessed with height, as seen by his preoccupation with the height of the tree from which he intends to hang Mordechai, who is good, has stature, and is more respected than Haman. This is the basis of Haman’s evil, and it is his downfall. When the King asks, “What should be done with a man that the king wants to honor?” Haman says to himself, “Who would the king want to honor more than me?” The turning point of the story is his moment of comprehension that the King is talking about Mordechai, and he is enraged. What an awful inferiority complex.

Yet the apex is still before us. When we celebrate Purim, which will remain a festival even when the Messiah comes, we are fulfilling a commandment to atone for the great sin of Eve. We are supposed to become drunk, to the point where we are unable to distinguish between Haman and Mordechai! When Eve picked the fruit and gave it to Adam and he ate it, he became aware of good and evil. The Bible, aspiring to complete the story, brings Eve’s sister Esther to atone for the sin, and return man to the state of unawareness that he enjoyed before he ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; before he knew what shame was, for there was nothing to be ashamed of. Esther returns the demonic evil to the tree, and we pretend, if only for a day, that there is no good or evil in the world. In our lives, only a state of drunkenness can blur the difference between good and evil, but when the Messiah comes, good and evil will be obliterated, and our ‘pretend’ condition today will become real.

I dare not draw any lesson from this about the destiny of women in our world, nor will I state that they will redeem us all from the great confusion in which we exist. I am blinded by political correctness, and lest I confuse good and evil, I shall end here

Elisha Wolfin heads the TALI School Rabbis program and conducts TALI teacher training. He is also the Rabbi at Kehillat V’ahavta in Zichron Yaakov, which he founded with a number of families 11 years ago.

Translated from the Hebrew by Penina Goldschmidt

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