You know how it feels to search frantically for something – say, your car keys – only to discover that they were in your pocket all along?
This is how I felt as I was brainstorming some topics relating to the upcoming festival of Purim, until I realized that a meaningful idea could be found right in the name “Purim” itself.
The name “Purim” seems to be an apt description of the essence of the holiday. Purim literally translates to “lotteries” in ancient Persian, the language spoken in Shushan, the capital of the then-Persian Empire and setting of the Purim story.
Indeed, the Purim story, as we read in Megillat Esther, is, in large part, defined by a lottery. Haman famously casts lots to determine the date of the Jewish people’s destruction (the month of Adar is chosen), only to have his plan backfire spectacularly.
Each year, despite being familiar with Megillat Esther, I listen to the reading with excitement and suspense. I know I am in for a treat; the plot is rife with themes such as love and hate, rivalry and friendship, reward and punishment. Reading the Megillah is a fascinating experience because of its contours of chance and coincidence, as well as the presence of dramatic irony.
In many ways, the Purim story is written akin to a modern-day “mad libs,” a wild ride of random twists and turns that is both climatic and anticlimactic at once. The situation in Shushan could have ended far worse, but the Jews benefited from their good fortune and emerged unscathed, celebrated grandly, and established a holiday to commemorate the event.
And that’s exactly what is so striking about Purim. As the name suggests, Purim is a holiday that, at least on the surface, is based on chance, coincidence, and fortuitous happenstance.
Yet, we also know that Megilliat Esther is included in the Biblical canon, and that Purim has attained the status of a full-fledged Jewish holiday. The halachic commentators write extensively about the holiday, and Purim even has its own set of mitzvot. But what could be the religious significance of Purim, a holiday literally meaning “lotteries”?
And what is it about the vicissitudes of political life in Shushan and the Jews’ auspicious fortune that makes Megillat Esther the quintessential Jewish text it is?
In my opinion, the answer can be found by fundamentally reframing how we view the familiar concept of luck and its relation to Purim. The idea is based on teachings from Rabbi David Lapin, the Rabbi of KBA in Raanana, Israel.
The Hebrew word for luck is quite ubiquitous: “mazal.” It will be heard frequently at simchas (joyful occasions) such as bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, graduations, and other anniversaries when guests congratulate the individual or family.
In English, the phrase “mazal tov” actually translates to “good luck,” which seems a bit strange as the accomplishment in question has already occurred. Consider this: while wishing an Olympian “mazel tov” after winning a gold medal is perfectly reasonable, telling them “good luck” – the English equivalent – as they proudly wear the medal seems questionable.
The Tiferes Yisroel, a 19th-century commentary on the Mishnah by Rabbi Yisroel Lifschitz, provides an elegantly novel take on the meaning of mazal. According to the Tiferes Yisroel, mazal does not correspond to its synonyms – luck, good odds, or a favorable outcome – but instead takes on a different meaning.
The word mazal, the Tiferes Yisroel explains, is etymologically related to the Hebrew word “nozel,” which translates to a flowing liquid. This is no coincidence; the two terms are closely linked by means of metaphor.
Imagine a stream or a creek. That flowing liquid contains numerous droplets of water that have united to create a force of water. Similarly, mazal should be thought of as the alignment of many — often infinitesimal — events and circumstances into a single entity. Mazal is thus a conglomerate, sum total of our life experiences, that has brought us to where we are today.
Viewed in this light, mazal is actually a linear and dynamic force. It is shaped by our past and actively directs us into the future. This stands in stark contrast to a lottery, for example, which is a singular, ephemeral, one-time event.
I believe that this view of mazal, shared by the Tiferes Yisroel, can help shed light on a very significant moment in the Purim story and cloak the holiday with new meaning.
The situation in Shushan is clearly dire by chapter 4 of the Megillah. Haman, a political figure who experiences a rapid rise to power, is threatening to wipe out the Jewish people via edict with King Achashvarosh’s scepter.
Becoming aware of the accumulation of events to that point, Mordechai presents Queen Esther with a poignant charge. We read in chapter 4, verse 14: “And who knows, perhaps you have attained a royal position for just such a crisis.”
Mordechai urges Esther to reflect on the alignment of events that have produced the current outcome; in other words, the many droplets of water that have begun to converge into a water flow. To have her consider that she now finds herself as the queen of Shushan and is uniquely positioned — and sufficiently powerful — to save her people from destruction.
In this remark, Mordechai is referencing and identifying Esther’s mazal. He tells her that it is her turn to act courageously, to perform the sacred task she is responsible for, and to bring salvation to the Jewish people.
With her mission taking on new meaning, Queen Esther rises to the occasion, using her talents to deliver a miraculous victory to the Jewish people. She has Mordechai assemble the Jewish community in Shushan to fast in solidarity with her, before she approaches the king — illegally, that is — to plead on behalf of her people.
While the Purim story may read as a hodgepodge of rather absurd and highly dependent events, there is indeed a design inherent in the plot. Ostensibly minor details attain crucial importance as the plot progresses.
Just as an example: in chapter 2, the Megillah mentions that Mordechai overheard and reported the planned assassination of King Achashvarosh. Then, in chapter 6, the king learns of Haman’s plan to kill Mordechai, the man who saved his life. Achashverosh is furious, and his anger peaks at just the right time, dealing a death blow to Haman and his malicious plan.
We can see how Purim is not merely a festival of coincidence. It is not about a lottery, for that matter, or about any sequences of otherwise fortuitous events. Purim, rather, is about the collective mazal of the Jewish people.
In large part due to the presence of mazal, Adar is a special month in the Jewish tradition. As the 12th and final month of the calendar, Adar is a prime occasion for our mazal to come to fruition. All the seeds that we planted are ripe for activation.
Our sages teach us, “Mishenichnas Adar Marbin b’Simcha.” With the onset of the month of Adar, we are supposed to lighten our spirits and spread joy with our awareness of our mazal. Adar is a dynamic month, full of possibilities and spiritual energy.
This Adar, and especially as the Purim holiday approaches, may we merit being able to emulate Queen Esther and cultivate our individual mazal towards increased personal growth and courageous action.
And, may we recognize the central role that mazal plays in the unfolding of our lives. In the tapestry of our mazal, our decisions and actions — though perhaps trivial when considered individually — will come together to produce a force that continues to shape our destinies.
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