Celebrating Purim with surgical precision

Celebrating Purim with surgical precision

There is an obvious parallel between the observance of Purim by the Jewish community and the celebration of New Year’s Eve on the Gregorian calendar. Both have historically been marked with the often immoderate drinking of intoxicants. Thankfully, a considerable body of rabbinic literature has emerged defining the diminutive amount of drinking actually required to fulfill Purim’s spiritual mandate.

There is also a less obvious parallel between the observance of Purim and the Gregorian New Year. The calendar based on the onset of Christianity does not (as one might expect) mark December 25 as the beginning of the new year, but January 1… because it was on that date, eight days later, that the newborn venerated by faithful Christians as savior was circumcised, and entered into the Covenant binding the Jewish People to God. January 1, New Year’s Day, is known also as the Feast of the Circumcision.

All this is connected to our approaching celebration of Purim by the tradition that Moses, the lawgiver and central human figure in Jewish Scripture, was born on 7 Adar 2369 – fully 1,393 years before the Christian (or “Common”) Era. If Moses was born on the 7th of Adar, he was eight days old on the 14th of Adar – the date destined to be celebrated as Purim by future generations of Jews. Purim is thus the anniversary of Moses’ bris… just as January 1 – New Year’s Day – is the Feast of the Circumcision. It was on Purim that Moses, who was to lead the Jewish People and champion the Covenant, was himself initiated into that Covenant through circumcision – through bris. Purim is thus a New Year’s celebration of sorts: on that date the human vehicle of the Sinai Covenant truly began life as a Jew, by entering the Covenant of Abraham.

Moses had a great deal in common with the protagonists of the Book of Esther, beyond the timing of his birth and bris. Like Esther and Mordechai, he exercised personal responsibility and leadership at extreme personal peril – in order to save the Jewish People from persecution and destruction. Like Esther and Mordechai, Moses survived a genocidal order originating in the highest offices of the realm. Like Esther and Mordechai, Moses was placed in strategic proximity to the most powerful leaders of the land – through a series of unlikely events. Like Esther and Mordechai, Moses led the Jewish People from a dark period toward a brighter and more promising future.

Moses, of course, is credited with the most explicit experience of God’s Presence in human history. The Torah records that they spoke, as it were, face to face. God famously makes absolutely no explicit appearance in the Book of Esther. Perhaps the tradition of Purim as the date of the Mosaic bris is intended to suggest that God was in fact a forceful and decisive Presence in the miracles of Purim – discharging His covenantal and providential role in Jewish history – despite His apparent absence from the scriptural account. Moses’ intimate relationship with God is thus transferred to Purim and the Megillah.

It seems to me that this process of transference of biblical themes works in both directions. By remembering that the bris of the lawgiver is celebrated on Purim, we are reminded that all the enthusiasm, energy and unbridled joy of Purim is precisely the spirit we properly bring to our national, communal, family, and personal observance of our covenantal mission – our religious tradition. Just as Moses’ direct access to God is transferred to the Book of Esther, the joy of Purim is transferred to our relationship to Jewish religious practice… in all its manifold expressions.

In the tradition of Moses, may we together experience a clearer sense of God’s Presence… and take renewed personal responsibility for the Jewish future. To paraphrase Kol Nidre: Mi-yom Chag Purim zeh ad yom Chag Purim ha-ba aleinu l’tovah. May the “New Year” ahead, from this Purim to the next, bring blessings of “light, joy, gladness, and honor” to us all… and may we eagerly – and effectively – bring that same “light, joy, gladness, and honor” to our study and observance of the Torah Moses received at Sinai… and which has been entrusted to our but temporary safekeeping.