Video+Story: Purim in El Paso

“Sometimes He says ‘hi’ by splitting a sea,” says Rabbi Levi Greenberg of Chabad of El Paso. “Sometimes He says ‘hi’ by masquerading in nature.”

To me, the story of Purim, and why it’s relevant today is about finding G-d.

Too often we are overwhelmed by a fast-paced life. We seem to dwell on social media and what may or may not be liked by our friends. We tend to think we deserve this, that, and the other simply because of where we work or attended university.

It’s the noise of life. In that noise, we lose sight of G-d and what He does.

The Basics of the Purim Story

In the 4th century BCE, the Persian Empire stretched over 127 lands. This vast kingdom included Israel and the Jewish people. When King Ahasuerus has his wife, Vashti, executed for not following his orders (she would not show herself off to all the men at one of the King’s parties), he arranged a beauty pageant to find a new queen.

At this pageant, a Jewish girl named Esther found favor in his eyes and became queen.

During this time, Haman was appointed the prime minister of the Persian Empire.  The King issued an order that everyone should bow down whenever Haman appeared. Haman would walk around with a large idol hanging around his neck.

Now, Mordechai was the leader of the Jewish people and Esther’s cousin. When he saw Haman, he refused to bow –  as a Jew is prohibited from bowing to idols. Haman was mad. With Haman’s anger boiling over he approached the King. He offered King Ahasuerus 10,000 silver talents in exchange for the right to kill the Jewish people off.

The King, who did not like the Jews at all told him he could keep his money and do what he wanted with the Jewish people.

The decree was ordered, and Haman cast lots to pick a date for the destruction of the Jewish people. He planned to have them killed en masse. The date chosen? The 13th of Adar.

When Mordechai learned of the terrible decree, he started to wear sackcloth and ashes, as a public act of repentance. Eventually, the whole of the Jewish nation followed him and did the same.

Up to now, Esther had not told the King that she was Jewish. Mordechai sent her a message that she must speak to the King. She would, she said, but only if everyone fasted for three days before her meeting the King.

Esther goes to the King. She reveals to him that Haman wanted to have her killed. It was then that she told the King she was Jewish. Haman was hanged, Mordechai was appointed prime minister, and a new decree was given. This decree granted the Jews the right to defend themselves against their enemies.

On the 13th of Adar, rather than the Jewish people being killed, they defended themselves and killed many of their enemies. On the 14th of Adar, they celebrated.

The Mitzvot, or Rules of Purim

I visited with Rabbi Levi Greenberg of Chabad Lubavitch of El Paso to learn more about Purim.

“Purim is celebrated in a very specific way,” says Rabbi Greenberg. “There are four Mitzvot we are obligated to do on Purim.”

The first Mitzvah, according to Rabbi Greenberg is to hear the story of Esther, as it is written, in a scroll similar to the Torah called a Megillah.

During the two days of Purim, each Jewish person is obligated to hear the Megillah twice. This year, on the evening of the 28th of February, and during March 1st .

The second Mitzvah of Purim is Matanot l’Evyonim or gifts to the poor. For Matanot l’Evyonimi you give charity to at least two people throughout the day.

“It’s a Mitzvah to give charity every day,” says Rabbi Greenberg. “Not every day are you obligated to give to two.” If you are unable to find anyone to give charity to you may also give to an organization
that assists the poor.

The next Mitzvah is Mishloach Manot or sending gifts, giving gifts of food to at least one friend. To observe this Mitzvah, you are to give food, prepared foods that are ready to eat, to a friend. You can give as many as you want, but the Mitzvot is to give to at least one person.

There is no restriction on the foods, as long as they are Kosher and ready to eat.

The final Mitzvah is Seudat Purim, or a festive dinner throughout the day of Purim, March 1st of this year.

“So, to clarify,” begins Rabbi Greenberg, “the Megilliah reading is meant to be on Wednesday evening and Thursday throughout the day. But giving charity, giving gifts of food, and the festive celebration is meant to be done throughout the day of Purim.”

Costumes and Dressing Up

Before leaving, I wanted to ask the Rabbi about the costumes on Purim. I can remember dressing up almost as if it were Halloween.

“Why do we dress up on Purim? Why do we masquerade?” asks Rabbi Greenberg, setting up the explanation for why.

“It’s interesting that in the entire book of Esther, in the Megilliah,” he says, “G-d’s name is not mentioned. There is no mention of G-d’s name.”

Rabbi Greenberg says there is something very unique about the miracle of Purim.

“On Passover, we celebrate the redemption from Egypt,” says Rabbi Greenberg. “There were unbelievable miracles there. No one could deny this was an act of G-d.”

The Passover story did have some unbelievable miracles: the water turning to blood, the death of the firstborn, the parting of the Red Sea. Each of these pointed to G-d, and no one could deny they were miracles of G-d.

“The story of Purim, if you read it, plays out like a typical palace intrigue,” said the Rabbi.

He’s right. As he says, the King gets drunk, kills his wife. The King marries another one. Doesn’t know where she is from. His best friend wants to kill a nation. But, when the king discovers his wife is part of that nation, he kills his best friend and keeps his wife

“Yet,” the Rabbi continues. “If you read it with an open mind, the fact that all of these pieces fell in the right place is also an act of G-d.”

“G-d operates in several ways. Sometimes He says ‘hi’ by splitting a sea,” says Rabbi Levi Greenberg of Chabad of El Paso. “Sometimes He says ‘hi’ by masquerading in nature. Truth is, nature itself is G-d.”

“G-d,” says the Rabbi, “is operating in this world through the forces of nature.”

So why do we masquerade on Purim?

“The reason we masquerade on Purim,” says Rabbi Greenberg “is to express the idea that the miracle of Purim was G-d’s masquerade. Just like we know the little fireman that walks in, the little police guy that walks in, the guy that’s dressed up like ‘whatever,’ what we see is not the real thing, the real person is behind that masquerade. The same thing is with regard the story of Purim and nature itself. We know that nature is really G- d’s masquerade.”

Like Rabbi Greenberg says, we are used to how the world runs. We think the world is running on its own. “In truth,” he says, “That’s G-d himself.”

My Thoughts

For me, Purim is a call to find G-d in the everyday. To see Him in His works. As Rabbi Greenberg so beautifully put it, in nature.

When we sit and hear the story of Esther, we could transpose ourselves into the story accompanied by any modern situation. Maybe it was that promotion you wanted at work but was given to another. Maybe you think you deserved it. Behind the scenes, G-d is working. Maybe there is something better just around the next corner that you are not seeing.

However you frame it, the story of Esther is for today. It’s a story of allowing G-d, even if you can’t see it, do His thing.