This year, Purim and Passover both fall in the month of March, which invites a rare opportunity to discuss these holidays together in the same bulletin article. It is interesting to note that the proximity of these holidays on the Jewish calendar was very deliberate from the start. Amidst a long discussion concerning the celebration of Purim, the Talmud argues (Megillah 6b) that it is preferable to juxtapose the redemption story found in the Book of Esther with the redemption story found in of the Book of Exodus.
In other words, our sages sought to conceptually link the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt and the salvation of the Jewish people from the genocidal designs of Haman by placing the celebrations of each of these events in close proximity on the Jewish calendar. Knowing what we know about each of these biblical stories and how we celebrate them, it would be natural to question why the sages structured the calendar to ensure such proximity.
As we consider Passover and Purim, the mood and celebration of each could not be more different. Passover is a Torah-based holiday whose fundamental observances are rooted in Torah law; Purim is a rabbinic holiday whose laws and customs are grounded in the rabbinic tradition. Passover is a week-long festival that demands tremendous preparation and an ongoing focus on the meaning and value of the themes of the season; Purim is a single day of fun and folly.
Theologically, these two holidays present us with very different messages as well. God is ever-present in the story of the Exodus, while the Book of Esther is the only book in the entire Bible that does mention God at all. Furthermore, each story presents a very different kind of path to redemption. The redemption celebrated on Passover is completely passive, as the miracles of the burning bush, the ten plagues, and the splitting of the sea constitute the primary forces that lead to our salvation as a people.
In stark contrast, the redemption which takes place in the story of Purim is a human endeavor led by Esther and Mordechai, who take full control of their own destiny and the destiny of the Jewish people. In this less “mythical” version of salvation, Esther and Mordechai utilized their wisdom, ingenuity and knowledge of human nature to shape the outcome of Jewish history.
Thus, in their narrative recounting and ritual observances, Passover and Purim reflect two very different models of salvation. One comes from a power beyond us. The other comes from a power within us.
Both of these concepts of salvation and redemption are core to who are as Jews. Each provides a model for faith and action and leads to the sense of renewal associated with the coming of spring.