When we think of Purim, the first thing that probably comes to mind is masks and costumes. Did we ever ask ourselves why we dress up on Purim? In the Megillah (Book of Esther) the Purim story is related in detail, but we find no mention of disguises or masks. Neither is there any commandment that calls for masquerading. Nonetheless, it remains a fact that no Purim celebration is complete without costumes and masks galore. Why should this be so? What is the connection between Purim and dressing up?
Here's another Purim puzzler: As we read the narrative of Haman's diabolical scheming against the Jews, we see that everything is planned and premeditated. This was no amateur, fly-by-night anti-Semite taking an impetuous pot-shot at his adversaries. It is no simple task to organize an empire-wide, one-day act of genocide. In addition, we see that Haman offered to compensate Ahashverus for the loss of income he would incur through the demise of the Jews, another indication that his plot was well thought out. Haman obviously possessed skill as an administrator. He also secured key positions throughout the empire for his many sons in order to ensure that his orders were carried out efficiently. It would seem that Haman overlooked no detail; he took everything into account, laid his plans carefully, and proceeded to carry them out, step by step.
If so, does it not seem odd - to say the least - that he leave a key element to a casting of lots? The structure of his evil plot was left to anything but chance. What went through his diabolical mind and made him resign the choice of a date to pure "fate"? Could we imagine the head of the CIA or any modern commander-in-chief determining the best day to open his offensive by throwing a pair of dice? "Timing is everything" the saying goes. Why did Haman leave the timing of a project that was obviously of prime importance to him to blind fate?
Yet, at no point do we find Haman accused of being foolish, or even reckless. Again, we find ourselves in need of an explanation.
A third question about Purim: We find that the Jewish festivals and special days have names which hint at their significance. For instance, Pesach-Passover is so called because G-d "passed over" the homes of Israel when He smote the first-born children of the Egyptians. It is also called "The Season of Our Freedom" because it marks our liberation from enslavement. Shavuoth is referred to as "The Season of the Giving of the Law" to recall the Giving of the Torah at Sinai; Succoth, the Feast of the Tabernacles, recalls the temporary dwellings in which the Jews made their homes while in the Wilderness. The New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, both bear names which are self-explanatory.
And Purim? The word means "lots." The Megillah specifically states that the name was chosen to recall the lots which Haman cast to fix the day for his proposed annihilation of the Jewish People. On Purim, we rejoice at our reprieve from a decree of genocide and the downfall of our arch-enemy who authored the plan. Wouldn't it seem more appropriate to refer to Purim as the day of our salvation, rescue, redemption, or the like? Or perhaps the Season of the Reversal, or Turnabout, when the evil plot against us was turned upside down and inside out, so that Haman ended up on the very same gallows he had prepared for Mordecai?
The casting of lots by Haman seems so trivial a component of our celebration that it leaves us wondering at the very name of the day.
To answer all three questions, we must delve more deeply into Haman's background. The antagonism Haman displayed against Israel was not his original invention. As a descendant of Amalek, Israel's enemy from its very inception as a nation at the time of the Exodus, Haman was heir to a long tradition of arrogant anti-Semitism, imbibed with his mother's milk.
Haman was motivated not only by a drive for status and revenge; there were powerful ideological motives for his enmity, as well. The Israel-Amalek conflict had its roots in a basic culture clash going back thousands of years. Shortly after the Exodus, Amalek attacked the new nation as it encamped on the sands of the desert, intruding on no one and posing no threat to Amalek's territory or power.
In connection with the original confrontation in the wilderness, the Sages note that Amalek traveled a considerable distance in order to wage war against Israel. Their concern was obviously not a territorial threat or expansion of its borders. Amalek was there to fight a battle of extermination before the Jewish people had a chance to grow too powerful to overcome. But why? What difference would it make to them if a new nation came into existence in a distant corner of the globe?
Amalek attacked not in hope of political or economic gain; there were far wealthier and more prestigious nations closer at hand. This attack was a matter of principle and a confrontation of ideologies to be fought to the bitter end. The Torah exhorts us to "Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went forth from Egypt; how he met you on the way, and he smote the stragglers at your rear, when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear G-d..."
The Sages explain that Amalek derives its existence from the power of happenstance. From the point of view of Amalek, all the phenomena of the universe are the result of random chance. Amalek categorically denies the existence of any purpose to the creation as a whole or any part of it. There is no plan, no master plan, and no Master to the world as we know it. Everything is the consequence of chance alone. Nations rise and fall, succeed, prosper or founder, all depending on the laws of blind fate. In the world structure of Amalek, there is no Judge, and consequently, no judgment. Man's actions and accomplishments are neither censored nor rewarded. Only one rule prevails, that of the jungle: victory goes to him who is most powerful.
In diametric contrast, Israel affirms the continuous supervision of the Creator over each and every individual Jew and his actions. Israel knows that the world was created with a specific, clearly defined purpose and goal. For the believing Jew, history is not a series of unrelated incidents, but rather an ongoing narrative of events which are interrelated and interdependent. Each stage of history brings our world that much closer to achieving its ultimate purpose.
The battle in the desert was a confrontation of two super-powers in the ideological sense. Each antagonist represented a world outlook diametrically opposed to the other. Two civilizations clashed. The echoes of the thunder of that collision rumble in the atmosphere yet today. The most basic issues of man's existence were at stake. Is man an accidental conglomeration of molecules that chanced to coalesce at some point in a cosmos which is oblivious to his fate, his very existence? Or is man the climax of G-d's creation, endowed with a sublime, spiritual soul which has been assigned an essential, one-of-a kind mission in this world?
Haman was a loyal son of Amalek. When he set the date for the extermination of his enemies, he did so using blind chance. Thus he hoped to convey an ideological message: man's fate is blind. There is no purpose to man's existence, and no Captain to the Ship of the universe. He was convinced that the Jews would be destroyed, (Heaven forbid) and that future historians would explain their defeat as the result of a set of random circumstances. Everything "happened" to occur in this way, but might just as easily have been different, or even the opposite. As proof of his stance, he could point to the fact that even the timing was the result of pure accident, like the fall of the dice.
As we know from the narrative of the Megillah, Haman's plans did not reach fruition. As the liturgy describes it, “Haman's lottery was transformed to our holiday of Purim.” His evil plot was foiled through a most striking set of “circumstances.” Years of meticulous planning and political maneuvering disintegrated like a tower of sand, and disappeared in only a few hours. And it all came about through an amazing chain of “coincidences” which no one could have foreseen.
The very night that Haman planned to set in motion his plan to topple Mordecai and eliminate him altogether, an old document gathering dust in the royal archives came to light. Its discovery brought about an electrifying transformation of the relationship between Haman and Mordecai. For nine years, the record of Mordecai's crucial role in preventing the kings assassination lay unread and untouched. Why was this night, and no other, chosen for it to come to Ahashverus' attention? Why was Haman the very first person to approach the king after he had been reminded of the decisive report submitted nearly a decade beforehand, so that it was he who was charged with demonstrating his majesty's appreciation for Mordecai's loyal services?
That night was an object lesson for the Jewish people in how to interpret "coincidences", "accidents", and "strokes of good luck." The Jew sees the events in this world not as Amalek views them, but as a direct expression of G-d's will. Behind every event, the Jewish people learned to perceive the guiding hand of their Guardian above.
Haman's lottery gave us a winning ticket
This insight also explains the extreme rejoicing we experience on Purim.
Haman's world is one of alien, hostile forces which control my life, not caring in the least whether they make me happy or sad, wealthy or destitute, healthy or tortured by painful wounds and disease. In short, blind fate does not care about me, or, for that matter, about anyone else.
As Amalek views life, Man is but an empty nutshell tossed about by the waves. At times, the waters may rock him gently to and fro. Other times, they toss him about heartlessly. At no time do they act upon his fate with a purpose, much less for his benefit. Amalek is doomed to a pitiful existence in which he sees himself as helplessly and hopelessly powerless to control his fate. Life has no point to it. There is no motivation to achieve moral perfection, to help one's fellow-man, or seek contentment.
The Jew's outlook is just the opposite. Confident that his Creator is watching his every move and seeking only his good, the Jew lives in a sheltering cloud of caring, loving concern which affords him inner joy and peace. There is no doubt in his mind that in every event, every seeming "coincidence", there lies a higher purpose which will eventually be revealed to him. What is more, each event, even what appears today to be tragic or catastrophic, takes place for a reason, and for his ultimate benefit.
This awareness leads directly to the consequence described in the Megillah: "For the Jews there was light and rejoicing." The Jew knows that his Father is looking after him; he has full confidence that his Father can and will do whatever is best for him. What greater joy can a person experience?
We now see Haman in a new perspective, and realize that his plot is but a continuation of Amalek's initial attack, thousands of years beforehand. This leads us back to our original question: Why the masks and the masquerading on Purim?
Let us concentrate on the hero of the Megillah. To whom do we refer? Our first answer might be Mordecai. On second thought, Mordecai was but the agent of the true Hero, our Creator. As mentioned above, none of the persons who played a major role in the Purim story made use of disguise, but one of them did manage to remain hidden to the untrained eye. Throughout the entire Megillah, there is no mention – even once – of the name of G-d.
However, to those who have learned how to read the Megillah, He appears throughout the narrative, from beginning to end! His "costume" is called "Nature" and His mask, "coincidence." He is always there, furnishing the power for the world to continue; He is always there, directing events, pulling the strings, and manipulating man's affairs, but He chooses to remain behind the scene.
When the final act is over and the curtain falls, all the pieces fall into place. The curtain rises again, and we see all the actors unmasked. Suddenly, we understand that there was a Guiding Hand which directed all the "chance meetings" one after the other. Between the lines of the Megillah, we suddenly come to see the Creator smiling at us again and again. We realize that all the sequences of "natural cause and effect" are one immense disguise which the Creator wears in order to test our "vision" − will we see the truth, or will we just make do with a superficial glance at the events around us, and, like Haman, attribute everything to "chance?"
On Purim, we re-enforce our awareness of the fact that this world is actually one immense camouflage for G-d's loving, guiding intervention in human affairs. Even the "lots" chosen by Haman are not mere chance. This is the central theme of Purim which gives the day its name. If G-d Himself chose, so to speak, to disguise Himself on Purim, is it any wonder that we, His people, follow His lead, and also dress up on this day of rejoicing?