Cantor’s Notes

Posted on December 21, 2023

Cantor’s Notes Spring 2024

Covering both Purim and Passover gives me a unique opportunity to compare and contrast the two. You might think that perhaps the only thing these holidays have in common is that their names start with the same letter. And yet, if we look hard enough, we might find that they share something far more important.


 Let’s start with Purim, although it takes place about 900 years after the Exodus from Egypt. Megillat Esther, the Purim story, is firmly based in the history of the Persian Empire and its relationship to the Jews. Around 597 BCE Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Kingdom of Judah and destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  Members of the Judean upper class were exiled to Babylon. This remnant of the Jewish people heeded the words of the prophet Jeremiah, who instructed them to “…work for the good of the city where I’ve taken you as captives, and pray to the Lord for that city. When it prospers, you will also prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). This attitude allowed the Jews to rise to the upper echelons of Babylonian society, and 70 years later they backed the Persians, who conquered the Babylonian Empire. The Persian king Cyrus was such a friend to the Jews that the prophet Isaiah referred to him as the messiah (Isaiah 45:1).  Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Israel, ordered them to rebuild the Temple, and even gave them back the Temple treasure which had been stolen by Nebuchadnezzar (Ezra 1:1-11).  Cyrus was so highly regarded by the Jews that some legends claim he may have been of Jewish descent, possibly the son of Esther and Achashveros (interesting, but unlikely).  Whatever the case, we know that the Jews were prominent in Persian society and held important positions of leadership, something that the Purim story describes. By following the divinely inspired advice of the prophets, the Jews not only survived, but prospered. 


The book of Esther contains almost no reference to God. Mordecai vaguely alludes to the fact that the Jews will be saved by someone else if not by Esther, but that is the closest the book comes to even mentioning the possibility of divine help.The story teaches us that God often works in ways that are not apparent, in ways that appear to be chance, coincidence or even good luck. It shows us that God helps those who help themselves.  Mordeccai and Esther don’t wait around for God to save them – they take the initiative. How strikingly different from Passover! 


The story of Passover is the origin story of the Jewish People. At the beginning, the Israelites were slaves, who didn’t have the ability to “help themselves.” God, and his representative Moses, are required to bring about change. The Exodus was the first event in the 40-year process of transformation from an enslaved band of tribes into a nation with a societal structure and a new religion. Passover and the story of the Exodus are seared into our collective memory.  It embodies so many concepts that are essential to Judaism – the value of liberty and freedom, the importance of God’s law and salvation, the ideals of social action. Passover defines us – it is our most important holiday. Is Purim even in the same league?


God is in both the Purim and Passover stories, despite not being mentioned in the Megillah. Over the course of centuries, our understanding of God evolved and matured. With the help of the prophets, we learned that “God is in the details,” you don’t need plagues and parting seas to recognize the Divine plan. God was and is the major character in our history. How could we, the Jewish People, still be here with all we’ve been through if not for a Divine plan? Perhaps the Purim story is more important than we realize. It teaches us that then, as now, our future is in partnership with God.