By Rabbi Steven Dansky, Cranbrook United Synagogue
Purim celebrates the foiling of Haman’s plot to destroy the Jewish people all on one day – the 13th of Adar. The name ‘Purim’ is derived from the word pur, lottery, and refers to the lots that Haman drew in order to decide the exact day of the Jews’ demise. As we all know, the day turned into a day of joy with the overthrow of Haman’s plan in Persia and all its 127 provinces.
Our sages point out that Purim shares the same root as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement on which we fast. On the surface, a significant connection between the two is the fasting that the Jews engaged in, in solidarity with Esther’s fast which she undertook for three days. Only then did she feel ready to begin the supplication before King Achashveirosh, which led eventually to Haman’s downfall.
However, I believe that there is a deeper connection between the two days. When the Temple stood, the High Priest also carried out a lottery, which was placed upon two goats, as part of his Yom Kippur service. The goats were similar in all ways. The manner of ascertaining which goat was to be brought as a sacrifice and consequently which goat would be sent to the wilderness, would be through a lottery.
Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) explains the significance of these lots. Just as the goats were identical, there was a set of twins who started their lives on the same spiritual level – Jacob and Esau. However, as they grew up, they chose different paths. Esau chose a life of physicality, while Jacob espoused a world of Godliness. These two goats are a representation of the two brothers going in separate directions, one to the wilderness, the other to the Temple. The Jews watching this spectacle were meant to introspect about who they were, whether they had kept faithful to their assigned tasks to spread spirituality in the world, or whether they had strayed in their behaviour and thoughts.
Let’s apply this idea to Purim. Haman drew lots in a contorted version of this lottery in which he and his people were the winners, whilst the Jewish people were no longer the ones chosen by God. Haman’s success at the beginning of his campaign to destroy the Jews, exemplified by the support of King Achashveirosh, was significant in that it alluded to a deviation the Jews had made from their spiritual roots. They had enjoyed Achashveirosh’s feast and had become resigned to and accepting of their place in the diaspora. Esther reminded the Jews of who they truly were, asking them to fast and to pray, in this way remembering their roots and obligations.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons that we wear masks on Purim, signifying how close we came at the time of Purim to masking our Jewish identity. Purim is more than a festival commemorating the defeat of the enemy; it is a celebration of Jewish identity, of the eternal responsibility of the Jew to actively remember their heritage.