Purim and Pesach are separated by exactly a month – Purim falls on the 14th of Adar (or the 15th if you live in a historically walled city) and Pesach falls on the 15th of Nissan. They occur during the full moon, a typical time for harvest, planting or otherwise agriculturally-focused celebrations. They both involve commemorating redemptions from our enemies through the reading of ancient texts that recount those events, and, to some extent, re-enacting them; through the use of special rituals and ritual objects unique to each holiday; through the giving of tzedakah and sharing our celebration with others; and through feasting and rejoicing. However, despite these surface similarities, these two holidays and their deep messages could not be more different.
In the Purim story the Jews were free subjects interspersed throughout the vast Persian Empire. It would seem that they were highly integrated into Persian society – certainly in terms of dress, language and other outward signs. In the Torah and the Haggadah’s depiction of the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were an enslaved and oppressed people, living in a separate region of Egypt (Goshen), and easily distinguishable from the Egyptians by their language and dress.
In the Megillah (the Book of Esther), while the King of Persia, Achashverosh (Ahashuerus) was self-absorbed and egotistical, he bore no malice towards, or suspicions of the Jews. In the book of Sh’mot (Exodus) and in the Haggadah, the King of Egypt, Pharaoh, was a brutal tyrant and heartless oppressor, who from the beginning was fearful of the growing numbers of Hebrew slaves, and hence treated them with contempt.
In the Purim story, at the urging of her guardian Mordechai, Esther hid her Jewish identity. In the Exodus story, Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh, the plagues, and every step of the Israelites’ struggle for liberation, were done openly. At no point were they asked to hide their identity, to masquerade as Egyptians. In the Megillah, God is not mentioned directly even once, while in the Exodus story, God is the main character, speaking directly to Moses, fighting Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and leading the Israelites to freedom.
On Purim our celebration mirrors the narrative and the themes of the Megillah – we dress in costumes and masquerade to hide our identities. We attempt to obliterate Haman’s name with our groggers. We are bidden to drink to excess – until we can no longer distinguish between the hero and the villain – and there are no dietary restrictions except for those of kashrut. On Pesach there are no costumes or hidden identities. Rather than trying to blot out Pharaoh’s name, it is Moses’ name which is excluded from the traditional Haggadah. Rather than rejoicing at or mocking our enemy’s downfall, we spill drops of wine to reduce our enjoyment and underscore our sympathy for the Egyptian’s plight with the reciting of each plague. And though we are to drink 4 cups of wine at the seder, the goal is never to get drunk. And finally, aside from fast days like Yom Kippur, Pesach requires the most extensive food restrictions of any holiday on the Jewish calendar.
Implicit within both the stories and the observances of these two very disparate holidays are several messages which I believe continue to be relevant to this very day:
—Whether we are highly assimilated and integrated into modern society, or completely separate and visibly distinct, as Jews we are always vulnerable to accusations of being “different” and therefore are suspect.
—Whether ruled by a self-serving autocrat who feeds on flattery and sycophancy, or a paranoid and iron-fisted totalitarian, our fate, and that of all minorities, is never secure. Only in a true democracy, with representative government and a leader who upholds and strengthens the norms and institutions of democracy, can we be secure.
—Neither hiding our identity by completely blending into the surrounding culture, nor strengthening our identity by completely separating ourselves from that culture will afford us complete protection. We need to continue to fight for a society which accepts us and all other minorities for who we are, without the demand that we sacrifice our uniqueness and sever all ties to our history and distinctive way of life, so long as we are good citizens working for the common good.
—We can fight for and celebrate continued redemption, equality and justice without demonizing our opponents or ignoring their suffering.
Wishing everyone a joyful and fulfilling Purim and Pesach!