One of the central features of the holiday of Purim is the reading of the Megillah. Not only do we have to hear every word, but the Mishnah rules, “If one reads the Megillah backwards, he has not fulfilled his obligation.”
The simple meaning of this law is that if one were to arrive in the middle of the Megillah reading and hear only the second half of the story but then heard the first half of the Megillah later on, he would not have fulfilled his obligation. One must read the entire Megillah and in its proper order.
Not Just History
The Ba’al Shem Tov provides us with an alternate translation of the Mishnah’s dictum:
One who reads the Megillah as a story of the past [“backwards”] has not fulfilled his obligation.
We cannot read the Megillah as an ancient story that is no longer relevant. We must read the story of Purim as if it is happening today.
The Rebbe once connected the Ba’al Shem Tov’s novel translation/interpretation with the simple meaning of that law. When one recounts a story of the past, the first thing that comes to mind is the end of the story and then one thinks backward to reconstruct the events that led to its conclusion.
However, when one reads the story as something that is happening now, we read in the proper order as if we do not know what the end will be until we go through all the twists and turns. We are in suspense as if it were happening now.
There is a third Chassidic interpretation of the law that says we cannot read the Megillah backwards. And, as we shall see, it ties in with the Ba’al Shem Tov’s translation as well, although the two interpretations may appear to be at variance with one another.
Knowing the End at the Beginning
When we read the story in order, without knowing the end, we cannot fathom why it is important for us to know all the details presented in the first few chapters.
We cannot comprehend why it is important for us to know that that the Persian monarch Achashveirosh threw an orgiastic party that lasted 180 days, followed by another party for all the people in Shushan.
It also makes no sense to us why we are reading about the problem a Persian monarch had with his queen, whose defiance lead directly to her downfall.
In the second chapter we discover some relevance to the narrative with Mordechai’s entry into the picture. We finally get to meet a Jew which provides us, as Jews, with a whiff of relevance but we may still fail to appreciate why it is important to know that there was a Jew by that name living in Shushan and that he was related to a Jewish woman named Esther.
Even as we progress further and learn Esther’s fate as the one chosen to be queen, as well as Mordechai’s saving the king from a murderous plot, we remain at a loss as to the relevance of these parts of the story to the celebration of Purim.
However, as we get into the more advanced parts of the narrative, where Haman schemes to annihilate the Jews when Mordechai refuses to bow down to him, we begin to find the significance of this ancient story to our lives in two opposite ways.
First, it arouses us to reflect on the perennial hatred and persecution of Jews. It can frighten us or empower us to do something about it. It stirs feelings in us.
But, at the same time, the narrative may actually turn us against the hero of the story. Why would Mordechai endanger his people so by not bowing down to Haman? So, while we feel connected to the story, we may feel disconnected from Mordechai. We may also fail to comprehend Mordechai’s behavior and be unable to see how the Jewish people could come out of Haman’s evil plot not only unharmed but triumphant.
The matter becomes somewhat clearer when we read of Esther’s request that everyone fast for three days before she entreats the king to annual Haman’s wicked decree of annihilation. We must hope that the moody and impulsive king will not kill Esther for her unauthorized entry into his inner chamber.
When she succeeds in gaining his favor, we still are far from certain that the king will grant her request.
Matters take a dramatic turn for the good when Achashveirosh cannot fall asleep one night and the book of chronicles is brought before him for midnight reading. When he reads that Mordechai saved his life but was never rewarded, Mordechai’s stock with the king rose dramatically and this set the stage for Haman’s humiliation.
Indeed, we are taught that when the reader of the Megillah reaches the part about the king’s bout of insomnia, he is supposed to raise his voice to mark this as a major turning point.
Finally, in the next chapter we read about how Esther spills the beans to the king about her Jewish identity. Haman’s fortune plummets and he is hanged on the very gallows he erected for Mordechai.
But the drama is still not over; the original decree that ordered the murder of all Jews in the empire could not simply be annulled. Even the king’s second order giving the Jews the right to defend themselves did not guarantee that they would prevail and be secure.
Only after reading the last two chapters of the Megillah are we able to appreciate the miracle of the Jews’ total victory over Haman and his thousands of diehard followers which is then topped off by Mordechai’s ascent to leadership in the kingdom. Only then will the casual reader appreciate in retrospect all of the details of the Megillah as having been essential parts of the miracle. From the very first verse, and indeed first word, of the Megillah the seeds for the great miracle were sowed.
This then is what our Sages had in mind when they said we cannot read the Megillah backwards. This refers even to one who only appreciates the miracle retroactively. So, while he may read it in order, he only receives the inspiration of salvation at the end.
The truth is that one does not have to rely on retrospective understanding to see the miracle. It is evident from the very beginning.
Application to the Present
This ties in with the Ba’al Shem Tov’s interpretation that one should not read the Megillah as an historical event but as something that is relevant to our own lives because it is happening today, in one form or another.
The Rebbe told us in no uncertain terms that we are standing on the very threshold of Redemption. There are two ways we can relate to this knowledge. The first is to sit back and anxiously wait for the Messianic drama to unfold. When we see cataclysmic events occurring, positive or negative, we see the beginnings of a process and hope for it to come to fruition in the immediate future.
Alternatively, we can see in every event and in every moment of these last days in exile the end result of total Redemption. In that way we begin living the experience of the Redemption now. We will not have to use hindsight to see how everything that happened was part of the Messianic process. We can see it as it unfolds and live with that realization.
Have a Happy Purim!