A striking fact about Purim is that it is a made up Jewish holiday. That is, if you asked a Jewish person in Mordecai and Esther’s day to name the Jewish holidays, they would be expected to simply recite the holidays listed in the Torah. Purim isn’t there. It was instituted, according to the Story of Esther, by that biblical book’s first audience; the Jewish community of Persia.
Purim is not alone in boasting this distinction. An ancient rabbinic document, called Megilat Ta’anit, lists dozens of celebratory days which were instituted by the people in commemoration of special events, but most of them are no longer observed. One of the first listed is the 7th day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar, which recognized the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem when the city was rebuilt in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. This raises a question: Why did Purim endure, but the Return of the Exile led by Ezra & Nehemiah did not earn lasting recognition as an event worthy of national celebration?
Purim makes an odd religious holiday in other respects. Aside from the familiar observation that God is not explicitly mentioned in the text of the story (and this being a biblical book!), the celebration at the end is unaccompanied by any mention of continued concern for the precariousness of Jewish life in Persia. No one seems to say, “Hey, that was a close call, let’s get out of here and go live in Israel.” Mordecai is appointed to high office, wins accolades from (most) of his brethren, and Esther remains in the palace with her non-Jewish husband, the king. The king gets to collect a new tax. Everyone settles in and there will be a party on the anniversary each year.
Perhaps Purim may be understood as the holiday of diaspora Judaism. Instead of aspiring to achieve the “flowering of our redemption,” (from the Prayer for the State of Israel) we accept the apparent arbitrariness of our destiny. Instead of sacrifice to settle in our Holy Land, we dream of contributing our “light unto the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6) In “every generation” we have to deal with the bad guys (Passover Haggadah). It’s been quite a ride but, so far, we’ve made it. That’s worth celebrating.
Rabbi Mitch Levine