What Can The Purim Story Teach Us About Redemption?

Dear Jew in the City,

As we think about the Jewish people being redeemed, what can we think about the Purim story about the Jews meriting redemption?



Dear Abraham,
Thanks for your question. I’m curious why your premise is that we’re “think(ing) about the Jewish people being redeemed.” Because of the war? Because redemption is a daily theme, even when we’re not at war. In fact, it’s the theme of not one, but two daily brachos: ga’al Yisroel (that God redeemed Israel, in the past) in the brachos of Shema, and go’eil Yisroel (that God is the One Who redeems Israel, as an ongoing process) in Shemoneh Esrei. So we’re always thinking about redemption, both past and future!

As far as Purim, I’d refer you to the gemara in Taanis (29a). There, it makes the famous statement that when the month of Adar begins, we increase our joy. On this, Rashi comments, “These were days of miracles for Israel: Purim and Pesach.”

That’s all well and good, but we’re talking about Adar, which is the month of Purim. Why is Rashi talking about Pesach? Ostensibly, the month of Adar is the start of “redemption season,” which extends through Pesach, but let’s contrast these two holidays.

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah) tells us that the Jews merited redemption from Egypt because they didn’t change their names or their language. The Megillah revolves around Mordechai and Esther, whose names are derived from Babylonian deities (Marduk and Ishtar). That’s pretty different.

In the exodus from Egypt, we were redeemed with overt miracles, from palpable darkness and flaming hail to a highway passing between two walls of water. Purim, however, relies upon God orchestrating things in such a way that events could be written off as mere happenstance.

Similarly, the Haggadah recounts the story of our redemption from Egypt without a single mention of God’s human emissary, Moshe. The Megillah, on the other hand, completely focuses on Mordechai and Esther, without acknowledging God’s role in our salvation.

In many ways, the two stories could not appear more different. The only thing they have in common is that the Jews were saved. So what did the Jews of the Persian empire do to merit salvation?

I’ll propose two answers. 

First, consider the reason for the threat to Jews in the first place. It wasn’t because Mordechai refused to bow to Haman; that was Haman’s reason, not God’s. Rather, the Jews deserved to be threatened because of their participation in Achashverosh’s party, as recounted in the beginning of the Megillah. Despite warnings from their religious leaders, the people abandoned God and Torah in order to curry favor with their human conqueror (Esther Rabbah 7:13). It wasn’t Mordechai’s proper action that invited destruction, it was the obsequious behavior of the masses.

So, all the Jews are threatened and Mordechai prevails upon Esther to intercede with the king. Esther is understandably hesitant, as Achashverosh has a track record of executing queens who displease him. Mordechai insists and Esther agrees with one proviso: the people have to fast three days for her.

Now, what is fasting? We fast on Yom Kippur. We fast on days when calamities occurred. The Jews would fast on droughts. The Assyrians in Nineveh fasted upon hearing Jonah’s prophecy. Fasting is a major component in the teshuvah (repentance) process. Esther’s message to the Jews wasn’t just “pray for me,” it was, “The end is near! Repent!”

According to this approach, the Jews brought near destruction upon themselves by ignoring Torah-based instructions, and they warranted salvation by changing their ways and following Torah-based instructions.

My second hypothesis is that the Jews of the Persian empire hadn’t done anything to merit salvation – yet. 

We previously cited a Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 3:4) in which Moshe asked God by what merit the Jews warranted being redeemed from Egypt. God replied that at that time they had no such merit, but they were destined to receive the Torah. We see from this that salvation might occur for merit that one is yet to earn. 

The gemara in Shabbos (88a) tells us that the Jews originally accepted the Torah under duress. (We discuss this topic at greater length here.) Basically, the context of the exodus and the Sinai experience made it pretty impossible for the Jews to say no.

The Megillah (Esther 9:27) tells us that, following their salvation, the Jews joyfully ratified that which they had previously accepted – the Torah. So if the Jews could be saved from Egypt because they would later accept the Torah from intimidation, they could certainly be saved in Persia because they would voluntarily re-accept the Torah with love.

One last thing I’d like to point out: when Mordechai was pressuring Esther to approach the king, he told her, “Don’t think that you’ll escape more than all the other Jews because you’re in the king’s palace. If you keep silent at such a time, then relief and salvation will come to the Jews in another way, but you and your father’s house will be destroyed” (Esther 4:13–14).

God has promised that the Jewish people will never be destroyed (Jeremiah 30:11, et al.). Salvation will always come at some point – even if our circumstances are as different as Purim and Pesach. Hopefully we’ll be redeemed because we deserve it, but it will ultimately happen in God’s mercy even if we don’t. Certainly, if we work towards our salvation – as Mordechai encouraged Esther to do, and Esther encouraged the Jews to do – the process will be smoother and the casualties preceding salvation will be fewer. So let’s all try to be worthy of salvation and bring it about, rather than hoping to be passive recipients of redemption.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
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