Purim and Pesach: Two Models Of Redemption
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander
The holidays of Purim and Pesach are observed in fairly similar ways: Both holidays are centered around feasting. While the tone of the Purim seudah differs from that of the Pesach seder, they are both times that we gather around the table for a festive meal, above-average drinking, and joyous celebration. To make these celebrations possible, we make it a high priority to donate to the poor to ensure that they too can take part in the festivities, be that through matanot la’evyonim on Purim or kimcha d’Pischa in the lead-up to Pesach and an invitation to the poor to eat with us at the Pesach seder.
Each of these celebrations is coupled with the recounting of the story – on Purim through the Megillah reading, and on Pesach through the recitation of the Haggadah.
Looking further, we see that the holidays themselves are interlinked with one another. Normally we have the tradition of performing a mitzvah at the first opportunity. Yet the Gemara (Megillah 6b) rules that in a leap year, when there are two Adars, Purim is celebrated in the second Adar, in order to juxtapose the two redemptive holidays of Purim and Pesach. What’s more, Purim occurs exactly a month before the first day of Pesach, making it the first day we are meant to study the laws of Pesach in preparation for the upcoming holiday (Pesachim 6a).
Furthermore, upon careful reading of Megillat Esther, we discover that Esther’s soirée with Achashverosh and Haman, and Haman’s sentencing to the gallows, took place on the first days of Pesach! This remarkable occurrence (mentioned in the piyut “Vayehi Bachatzi Halayla,” recited at the conclusion of the seder) leads the Magen Avraham (OC 490:1), to suggest that we should add an extra dish to our holiday meal on the second day of Pesach to express our gratitude for the downfall of Haman which occurred on that day.
The similarities between these two holidays focus on the fact that they represent redemption of the Jewish people from demise, and therefore their celebration is rooted in activities that require concern for each other. For our redemption as a people and as individuals is only possible when we are concerned for the other. When we recognize our commitment to the other. Being unified and not parochial is what merits us to be redeemed.
Yet even as Purim and Pesach share commonalities and connections, the underlying stories and themes of the two holidays are different from each other. Contrary to the book of Shemot, the Haggadah hardly makes a single reference to Moshe (early manuscripts of the Haggadah contain no references to Moshe) in its recounting of the Exodus narrative. Hashem, it seems, is entirely at the reins, and the human actors, even those at the level of Moshe, are overlooked. But the opposite is the case regarding Purim. In the book of Esther it is Hashem who gets sidelined, so to speak, failing to earn a single mention in the whole Megillah.
The distinction in whose name is missing is, in fact, reflective of the larger thematic difference between Purim and Pesach. Pesach marks the very beginning of the relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem. In its infancy, with the Jewish people bereft of mitzvot, it is God who works wonders in order to save the Jewish people. Yet in the Purim story, which comes at the tail end of Tanach, when prophecy is over, the Jewish people are led by Esther and Mordechai, gather together in prayer, take initiative, and, with God’s ever-present yet invisible hand guiding them, bring about their own redemption.
The trajectory of Jewish history, as reflected in the arc of the Jewish calendar, takes us from Pesach to Purim, from Itaruta dil’eila (“awakening from above”) to Itaruta dil’tata (“awakening from below”). While our story begins with total dependence upon divine mercy, awaiting and yearning for God’s intervention to save us, we eventually find ourselves in the position of Mordechai and Esther, taking the initiative while trusting that God is guiding their way.
It is why the Rambam tells us that in Messianic times, the Book of Esther will, with the five books of the Torah, be the most crucial text of Tanach, for it emphasizes that the final redemption can only be achieved when we recognize that our actions either deter the Messianic moment or hasten its coming.
This journey, this balancing act, is something we all carry with us wherever we go. We are at once recipients and givers, the beneficiaries of divine kindness and the bestowers of kindness upon others in the name of the Divine. We must always pursue the path of histadlut, of investing our own efforts, even as we never lose sight of the need for hashgacha, Divine Providence. This is true at the broadest level of Jewish history, and it is true for our personal journeys.
As we make our way through this season of festivals of redemption, may we never forget to have faith in God, and faith in ourselves, so we can be partners with the Divine in hastening the redemption of the Jewish people and all of society.
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is the President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, a Modern Orthodox network of 30 institutions and programs lighting the way in Jewish education, outreach and leadership.
This article first appeared in The Jewish Press