Purim Redemption and Pesah Redemption

Over the past year, I’ve been counseling recovering addicts at a Jewish treatment center called Beit T’Shuvah.

One of my clients – let’s call him David – is a father of two in his late-30’s.  His drug addiction had destroyed his health, his family, and his career.  David’s life was out of control, but he maintained that he was still in charge of his addiction.

David’s behavior is not uncommon.  Addicts delusionally insist that they are in control, despite all the evidence to the contrary. That is why the 12 steps call for admitting powerlessness and believing that redemption can only come from turning one’s life over to a Higher Power.

Over time, though, I felt I was making progress in getting David to begin working the steps.

The problem was, David was getting worse.  He relapsed and started using heroin again, and more recklessly.

What was happening?

While David was saying he had turned his life over to God, he had also stopped doing just about everything else.  He stopped going to therapy sessions, stopped calling his sponsor, and stopped attending meetings.  He stopped doing any of the work required of him to progress in recovery.

When I asked him “why,” he looked puzzled. Incredulously, he said, “You told me that only God could save me. Doesn’t that make it counterproductive for me to do anything myself? After all, isn’t doing things on my own what got me here in the first place?”

In David’s mind, there were only two options for redemption: waiting for God to do everything, or taking his fate entirely into his own hands.

Similarly, in the Jewish tradition, there seem to be two distinct options for redemption: Pesah Redemption and Purim Redemption.

What is Pesah Redemption?

The Jewish tradition views the Exodus story as God lifting the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery.  God reminds us in the Torah – atem ra’item asher asiti l’mitzrayim, va-esa et’khem al kanfei nesharim va-avi et’khem elai/ you saw what I did to Egypt, that I carried you on the wings of eagles and brought you to me.

Similarly, if you use a traditional haggadah at your Seder in a few weeks, you will notice that Moses is not mentioned in it even once.  Instead, the haggadah emphasizes v’yotzienu Adonai mi-mitzrayim lo al yedei malakh, v’lo al yedei saraf, v’lo al yedei shaliah, ela ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu bikhvodo u’ve-atzmo / God took us out of Egypt, not by a messenger, and not by an angel, and not by a surrogate – rather it was the Holy Blessing One through God’s own glory and by God’s own self who took us out of Egypt.

Pesah Redemption is achieved entirely by the Grace of God: God acts in our lives and in the world to make things happen for us.  The whole world is in His hands.

Purim Redemption is the opposite.  The book of Esther is the one biblical book that never mentions God.  Haman plots to kill the Jews, Mordechai saves the king, Esther foils Haman’s plot.  The Jews’ victory in the story is won by the people and for the people.

Purim Redemption, then, is about human action: God does not intervene.  We are the masters of our fates, we are the captains of our souls.

Two very different models of redemption: one entirely dependent on God, and one entirely dependent on us.

So what kind of redemption should we look for in our lives:  Pesah Redemption or Purim Redemption?

There is a great comfort and optimism in Pesah Redemption. But I think most of us don’t encounter life that way.  I have never experienced God swooping down to solve my problems for me, even in my times of greatest need.

And there is a wonderful sense of empowerment involved in Purim Redemption. But, for me, removing God from the picture feels reductionist, lonely and pessimistic.  I need some hope in the possibility of help from a loving, compassionate higher power.

Fortunately, I do not think we are forced to choose between being Pesah Jews or Purim Jews. I think we are invited to be both.

According to the Talmud, the month in which we celebrate Purim must be connected to the month in which we celebrate Pesah.  In this way, we always celebrate Purim one month before Pesah – even in a leap year.

We do this, by the way, at the expense of a conflicting Jewish value.  Usually, one is supposed to perform a mitzvah the first opportunity one has.  That being the case, one would expect the tradition to have us celebrate Purim during the first Adar, the first possible opportunity to do so.  Instead, we wait, so that we can connect Purim to Pesah.

Given that Purim and Pesah are so different, why do we do this?

So we may always link the redemption of Purim to the redemption of Pesah.  We are, in the Talmud’s words, to connect redemption to redemption – m’samekh ge’ulah l’ge’ulah.  

We connect Purim to Pesah because we need both Pesah Redemption and Purim Redemption.  Redemption in our lives and in our world requires our work…and God’s help.  We can recognize God’s help as the opportunities that we discover are open for us; as the voices around us and within us – at every moment, throughout all of creation, even in our own hearts – that invite us to take the next, best possible step; and as the people in our lives who support us as we take those steps.  So we overcome our struggles by taking our own steps…and knowing that God is with us as we walk.  Linking Purim to Pesah is our reminder that salvation is always a partnership between God and us.

After all, Pesah could never have happened without the work of people.

Remember the story of the splitting of the Red Sea?  It is perhaps the most exciting, most suspenseful scene in the Torah: The Israelites escape from Pharaoh’s cruel slavery after the terror of the Ten Plagues.  They hastily flee from Egypt, running away to the wilderness without even taking the time to let their bread rise.  Meanwhile, as they camp at the banks of the Red Sea, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened one last time, and he sends his entire army charging after them.  The Israelites find themselves trapped – the impassable Sea in front of them and the charging army of Pharaoh’s charioteers behind them.  It appears to be certain death.

They cry bitterly to Moses, who raises his eyes to God in prayer.  God tells him to lift up his rod and hold it out over the sea.  As he does this, God causes the Sea to split in two, allowing the Israelites to cross safely.  And when Pharaoh’s troops follow them, the sea returns, crashing down and drowning the Egyptians. Thus, Israel secures its redemption from slavery.

The Torah emphasizes the splitting of the Sea as God’s miracle.  Classic Pesah Redemption.  God swoops in and saves the day.

The rabbis of the midrash, however, read the story quite differently. Here’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s telling:

Moses leads the people to the banks of the sea.   Camped at the Sea’s edge, the Israelites hear the hoof-beats of Pharaoh’s approaching army.  The people cry out to Moses.  Moses prays to God, and God tells him to hold his staff over the Sea, and the Sea will split.  And this he does, exactly as he is commanded, but the Sea doesn’t split!  He tries again, but the waters still do not part.  He becomes nervous.  He tries to recall God’s exact words, the exact instructions.  Once again he holds the staff over the waters.  And once again they do not part.  Moses panics.  The people panic.  Everyone is frenzied with fear.  And no one knows what to do…

No one, that is, except one man.  One man perceived what even Moses our teacher could not.  His name was Nachshon ben Aminadav; he was one of the princes of the tribes of Israel.  And Nahshon understood.  Nachshon understood that God was waiting.  God had sent Moses.  And God had brought the plagues.  And God had led them out of Egypt.  But now God was waiting for the people to take some role in their own redemption.  God, Nachshon understood, would not part the Sea until someone moved – moved toward his or her own redemption – until someone was ready to risk his or her life to bring about salvation.  And so…he jumped in.

At first, everyone looked at him in wonder and awe. His family shouted, “What are you doing?!!”  But he paid no heed…he knew exactly what he was doing.  And he waded out farther until the water covered his knees.  His family and friends screamed and shouted and begged him to return, but he went further still, until the water reached his waist.  And now everyone stood in silence and watched.  He waded out even further, until water covered his shoulders.  And then a few more steps, and he disappeared under the water.  The water covered his nostrils and he could no longer breathe.  And then a few more steps, and Nachshon began to drown…

And then, only then, did the Sea split, allowing Israel to cross safely.

Our rabbis taught that we may not be passive bystanders in the story of our own redemption.  God brings redemption only when we are ready to take action.  The rabbis stress that Pesah Redemption happened because there was a Purim Jew in the story.

The same is true with Purim: Despite the fact that Purim Redemption seems to be about human action, the rabbis teach that God was working behind the story’s scenes.  Mordechai hints at God’s hidden role when he says that, if Esther does not act to foil Haman’s plot, the Jews’ redemption will have to come from makom aher, “another place.”  What is this mysterious “other place?”  Noting that the story’s title, Esther, is the Hebrew word for hidden, the rabbis suggest that it is God who is hidden, though nevertheless present, throughout the Purim story.  We may not see God, but God is there, orchestrating the Jews’ triumph.

From this insight, the rabbis read God into the Purim story, and bring God into our consciousness during the holiday.  Several times during Purim, we insert this prayer, al ha-nissim, for the miracles, into our liturgy.  The Megilah emphasizes human action, but the al ha-nissim prayer describes the Purim story as God’s miracle: “V’ata b’rahamekha ha-rabim hafarta et atzato, v’kilkalta et mahashavato, v’hashevota lo g’mulo b’rosho / You, in great mercy, thwarted Haman’s designs, frustrated his plot, and visited upon him the evil he planned to bring on others.”  God, the rabbis taught, is ultimately responsible for the Jews’ salvation. Thus, according to our tradition, Purim Redemption happened because there was a Pesah God in the story.

All this is a reminder that both Purim and Pesah happened because people worked with God. And so too, God looks to partner with us in our own – and the world’s – redemption.

The other week, I was playing with my friend’s daughter, Eliana. Ellie had a difficult first few months of life, and at 18 months, she has been a bit slow to walk.  But Ellie LOVES learning to walk.  So, I stood behind her, helped her lift herself up by her arms, and gently held her up while she began taking her own giant steps forward.  I wish you could have seen the delight on her face – her eyes sparkling, her two teeth sticking out from a huge smile – she looked like a joyous little bunny rabbit.

Overwhelmed by her cuteness, I picked Ellie up to hug her.  But when I did, her smile faded, her laughter subsided.  The crying began.

So I put her down completely.  No luck – even more crying!

But when I resumed helping her walk, the crying stopped; the smile and laughter returned to her little face.

That day, Ellie taught me a powerful lesson: If I carried her, Ellie would never be able to walk on her own.  But she would also never walk if I left her completely alone.  For Ellie’s redemption, overcoming her challenges to walking, Ellie needed a combination of Pesah and Purim.

I think you and I are much like Ellie.  We all need redemption. We all have obstacles to overcome. If we want to get there, we need to take our own steps.  And we need to know that we are not walking alone.  We must do the moving, and God stands behind us, helping to lift us up, gently holding us while we take our own steps.

As we move from Purim to Pesah, may each of us partner with God, combining God’s guidance with our own steps, in whatever redemption we need in our lives and in our world.  Shabbat Shalom.

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One Response to Purim Redemption and Pesah Redemption

  1. Anna Tractenberg says:

    This is a beautiful and inspiritational essay. It is posted on the WLCJ. MEGILLAH ESTHER FACEBOOK PAGE.

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