By Al Maimon
This weekend we will read Megillat Esther( the Scroll of Esther), one of the books of the Bible to begin celebration of the holiday of Purim.
As recorded in the Megilla, during the exile of the Jews from Israel in Persia, between the first and second Temple period, the Jews were saved from a threatened mortal blow and, in fact, the threat was turned into a period of great prominence, leading to the return to Israel and rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.
Key characters include Mordechai and Esther, with Mordechai having a central role in events leading up to the threat and then the salvation and Esther rising being the queen to Achashverosh, the king of Persia during this time period. The arch enemy is Haman who plots to destroy the Jews and who enjoys a period of great power and, as the story unfolds, has his intentions thwarted, with him falling victim in the end.
A distinguishing feature of this entire episode is its apparent natural and “coincidental” sequence of events; in fact it is held as an exemplar of a “hidden miracle”, where the Hand of HaShem in history does not appear through an apparent suspension of nature, but rather through “the natural turn of events”. The holiday is celebrated in many ways, including by reading the Megilla( at night and in the day), joining together in a festive and celebratory meal, gifts given to friends and help to the poor. The source for the holiday and its celebration is in fact reported in the Megilla itself.
Shabbat Zachor: The Shabbat before Purim
Today is Shabbat Zachor, one of the “thematic” Shabbatot - with special additional Torah reading and a different Haftara. This is to fulfill the biblical requirement to remember Amalek, HaShem’s designated arch enemy and personification of evil, and to remember the commanded ultimate eradication of Amalek and his genealogical and behavioral descendants. This commandment is fulfilled on this Shabbat, the one right before Purim because tradition connects Amalek with Purim through the ancestry of Haman from Amalek.
… also known as Shabbat MiKamocha
In most Sephardic synagogues, at SBH, we also read a poem by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi called Mi Kamocha on this Shabbat. Yehuda HaLevi, doctor, poet, philosopher, born in Spain in the 11th century and died in or on his way to Israel, also wrote Kuzari( a philosophical work on the merits of Judaism) and many other poems.
At SBH we read it before Sefer Torah, read by the Hazan (or other reader(s)) with the last stanza of each chapter said by kahal, The poem has four chapters and the first letter of each stanza is alphabetical (in chapters one and three), and has his name “signed”(fully in chapter two and abbreviated in the fourth). Each stanza has four lines with a double rhyme- a) within the stanza the first three lines rhyme and b) the fourth line of each stanza ends with the Hebrew word “lo.”
While it is mainly a poetic recounting of the story of Purim, the beginning and the end also speak about other historic events, highlighting the splitting of the sea after the exodus from Egypt- an exemplar of an “open miracle”- HaShem intervening in a “supernatural” way through an apparent suspension of nature. Even the title, MiKamocha refers to the song said after the splitting, praising HaShem for His intervention. A lesson that may be learned from this connection is that whether it’s an open miracle like splitting the sea or a hidden miracle, like the one we celebrate on Purim, we acknowledge and praise HaShem for His providence and protection.
May we continue to merit, experience and recognize the special historic relationship we have with HaShem.
Shabbat Shalom, Buen Purim, Buenos Anios, and don’t forget another poem:
“Purim, Purim Lanu; Pesah En La mano…” if Purim is here, can Pesah be far behind?