A text version of my sermon from this past Shabbat –
If you don’t mind I’d like to begin by doing a little bit of calendaring with you, reminding you of a couple of important upcoming dates on the Jewish calendar. First of all, one week from Wednesday night is the beginning of Purim, and we have a wonderful evening planned: a Purim carnival for the young, we’ll have the Bible players, a kind of biblically oriented minstrel group, giving us their take on the story of Esther; also a class that evening about the holiday, and then the culmination of the evening, a robust reading of the megilah combined with our very own version of the Masked Singers of Shushan, where you’ll be asked to guess at the identities of Beth El staff and members as they sing popular songs while wearing ridiculous costumes. Again, that is all happening one week from Wednesday evening, activities beginning at 5:15, right here at Beth El.
But if Purim is a little over a week away, that means that Passover can’t be far behind, and indeed the first seder is exactly six weeks from last night. Believe it or not I actually know two people who have already started cooking for Passover! Just in the last few days my wife Becky has started encouraging me to try to finish any hametz that we have around the house, from cookies to candy to beer, and I am sure that Seven Mile Market is laying in a large store of brisket for the coming weeks. The truth is on the Hebrew calendar Purim and Passover are just about a month apart, both holidays falling on the 14th day of their respective months.
And what I would like to do with you for a few minutes this morning is to think about the two holidays together, sort of holding one up against the other. To start that process I’ll ask a simple question that we’ll vote on – the question is which holiday is more important. If you think that Purim is more important than Passover, raise your hand. Now, if you think Passover is more important than Purim, raise your hand.
No question what we’ve just seen reflects the general perception of the two holidays, and for good reason. After all, Purim is, at least these days, largely understood as a holiday for children. Even the adults who celebrate dress up in costume, there are comical activities going on in shul, there is a carnival, the reading of the Megillah is often filled with shtick, even the story of the Megillah can be read as a kind of dark comedy where everything gets flipped upside down, sort of like something from the imaginings of the Coen brothers, the creators of Fargo. Purim is a lot of fun, but not much more than that.
Passover, on the other hand, is on a totally different level. It is, first of all, the most celebrated of all Jewish holidays. By far! Statistics show that upwards of 90% of Jews make sure to get to a Passover seder. Just to give you something to compare it to, only about 60% of Jews fast on Yom Kippur. Passover is also complicated, with all of the rituals and the special foods for the seder plate and the haggadah text that leads us through the evening. Passover is about serious themes – it is about freedom and human dignity, it is about the coming of spring and the rebirth of the world, and what is more, Passover tells the origin story of the Jewish people – we were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed us, bringing us to the Promised Land and freedom. Passover is serious business!
And Passover has other advantages over Purim. It is one of the three major pilgrimage festivals commanded by the Torah. Purim isn’t even mentioned in the Torah! Purim lasts one day – you are in, you are out! Passover is a festival that is celebrated for? 8 full days! Passover has its own special version of kashrut. The list could go on and on. So it is no wonder that in the poll we just conducted, the vast majority of us voted for Passover as the more important of the two holidays.
Which is why I have always been puzzled by a very strange teaching in our tradition about what the messianic era will be like. And our Sages said that when the Messiah finally arrives, the Pilgrimage Festivals – Sukkot, Shavuot – and Pesah – Passover! – will no longer be celebrated. But Purim will still be observed. Let me say that once more – our Sages believed that in the messianic era we won’t have to build sukkoth any more, or shake the lulav and etrog, or study Torah on the night of Shavuot – or sit down at a seder table, and celebrate Passover. But we will still have to gather together to read the Megillah and to celebrate Purim.
So despite our vote, in some way and for some reason our Sages believed that there is a message in Purim that is more important that the messages of Passover. That there is an idea that Purim represents, that is more significant in some way than all of those values we associate with Pesah. What could it possibly be?
And I think the answer to that question has to do with the often noted fact that God’s name does not appear in the Megillah. So on March 20th, when you all come back for Purim, and I hope you will, follow along closely with the reading of the Megillah, and you’ll see that there is no mention of God, anywhere, in the Book of Esther. But 6 weeks from now, when you are sitting at the seder table, take a moment and start counting how many times God’s name appears in the Haggadah. Just in the kiddish alone, including the shehechiyanu, you have 9. And as you flip through the pages you will find God referred to over and over again, often by name. Think of it like this – God is not on a single page of the Megillah. But God is on virtually every page of the Haggadah.
And that is because the core question of the Haggadah is ‘what did God do for us?’ The Haggadah, at least the first half, is in many ways an answer to that question. God took note of us, God performed miracles for us, God took us from slavery to freedom. And we thank God for God’s kindnesses. That is Hallel! What did God do for us? That is the question of the Haggadah.
But the question of the Megillah is an entirely different question. The story of Purim asks ‘what did we do for ourselves?’ And it answers that question by showing how, with incredible courage, in the face of enormous odds, Mordecai and Esther saved the Jews of their time.
And I think the message the Sages saw in Purim that they didn’t see in Passover is that salvation ultimately must come about through human action, not through God’s miracles. If you want to make the world a better place, if you want to heal the world, if you want to make the world into the kind of place where one day the Messiah might actually come – then you can’t ask the question ‘what will God do.’ But you have to ask the question ‘what will we do?’ And when you ask it over and over and over again, then that world can become a reality.
Now I love Passover. It is my favorite holiday, and it is only 6 weeks away. But Purim is first, and it has a powerful – and often over looked – lesson about the responsibility we all have, through the way we lead our lives, to create together a better world. Let’s celebrate that message on Purim in 10 days, and carry that message with us through Passover and beyond. Kein Yehi Ratzon