“For this reason, they called the days Purim, after the pur…” (Esther 9: 26)
It is the Jewish people themselves who named the holiday Purim, a singular name unlike any other in the roster of special days on the Hebrew calendar. Shabbat is called after an act of God, the cessation of creative acts after the Six Days of Creation. Pesach is similarly named after an act of God, the passing over the houses of the Israelites. Shavuot receives its name from the weeks counted by B’nai Yisrael between the Exodus and the Giving of the Torah. Sukkot refers to the protection afforded B’nai Yisrael in the wilderness by their beneficent God. The only special days that might be said to reflect the acts of Gentiles in their name, the four fasts, are actually Israel centric.
Purim, however, named by the Jews themselves, alludes to the act of their sworn enemy, the evil Haman: the casting of lots to identify an auspicious day for their destruction. In his important work R’sisei Layla, the holy R’ Tzadok haKohen of Lublin observes the central role of the evil Haman in the name of the holiday and hence an indication of the essential character of Purim itself. R’ Tzadok associates Purim with a folk saying cited by the Gemara: “from the forest itself comes the handle of the ax” (Sanhedrin 39b). In other words, the forest produces the very tool of its own destruction, the wooden handle of the ax used to cut down its trees.
This is the essential irony of the holiday’s name. Haman‘s lot fell on the month of Adar. In casting the lot, he sowed the seeds of his own destruction which would occur at the time he anticipated for his greatest victory.
The Megillah importantly offers a translation and explanation of the word pur in Esther 3:7: “In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, a pur, that is the lot (goral) was cast before Haman from day to day, and from month to month, to the twelfth month which is the month of Adar.” There is much more to the Hebrew word goral than the notion of randomness and the roll of the dice. I have written elsewhere (Purim and the Randomness of Life, Purim-to-Go 5772) that goral means, by extension, fate. Haman has not understood his true destiny by placing his fate in the lottery (goral) that brings his ultimate defeat. Haman has struggled against his fate and lost.
In Kol Dodi Dofek, the Rav zt”l contrasts two modes of engagement with Jewish history. They represent covenants, if you will, relationships between the Jew and his own history. There was the “Covenant of Egypt,” in which all Jews were subject to the same fate. It is the covenant among Jews in the eyes of Haman. He did not distinguish between Mordechai and other Jews across the far flung empire of Ahasuerus. All Jews are the same, subject to the same fate, no matter how distinct and separate they may appear. This is the b’rit ha-Goral, the Covenant of Fate.
Not so for Mordechai. The Jews are bound, since Sinai, in a Covenant of Destiny (b’rit ha-Yeud). Mordechai counsels Esther not to wait passively for fate to unfold but to embrace her destiny. It is significant that the first act he calls upon her to do is to fast together with her community. A fast is a communal call to action: “Solemnize a fast, Proclaim an assembly; Gather the elders—all the inhabitants of the land— In the House of the LORD your God, And cry out to the LORD.” (Joel 1:14) Haman will live and die by the goral; Mordechai, Esther and the People of Israel will embrace their destiny.
Rabbi Ozer Glickman is a rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, where he has been teaching Talmud and halakha to semikha students since 2000. He has also taught Halakha and American legal theory at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and is affiliated with its Program in Jewish Law and Interdisciplinary Studies.