In 1969, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) began a lecture on Purim, and asked the audience to ponder the “basic discrepancy between Purim and Chanukah,” two holidays that share a similar status or recognition, even if spaced a few months apart on the Jewish calendar, with individual observances unique to each. “I’m not speaking about specific mitzvos,” he continued. “I’m speaking about the character, halachic background...”
What Rabbi Soloveitchik was concerned with, and what he termed a “paradox,” was that a Rabbinically binding holiday (both Purim and Chanukah are), and specifically the requirement to read the Megillah, was being derived from a Biblical source, the Book of Esther, which is included as one of the 24 s’farim of Tanach. “The document is D’Oraisa (Biblical), but the obligatory character, binding force of the mitzvah (to read it) is only D’Rabbanan (Rabbinical). This asymmetry, he felt, was a significant difference between the two Rabbinically ordained holidays of Purim and Chanukah, and he wanted to understand how it had occurred.
As he continued his lecture, Rabbi Soloveitchik outlined how the Megillah of Purim was at first not intended to be part of the Biblical canon. Initially, the story of Purim was transcribed by Mordechai and shared far and wide with the Jewish community, but it was only an igeres (a letter). Then Esther wrote another letter, basically repetitive of Mordechai’s initial request, seeking to establish these days of the 14th and 15th of Adar as Purim for all times. “What did she ask for?” said Rabbi Soloveitchik. “Whatever she wanted had been fulfilled, her request (for establishment of the holiday) was granted.” Esther’s request, he explained, was that this “letter” be elevated to the level of the Holy Books, and once that happened, what we take from Megillas Esther – now one of the books of the Tanach – is much more different, its message all the more powerful and eternal.
“An igeres is a story – a true story,” said Rabbi Soloveitchik. “I don’t want to mitigate the importance of an igeres.” But once the recounted Purim story became an actual Book of the Bible, he continued, “there’s a new dimension to the Megillah – the Megillah is part of Torah. Certain halachos must be derived from Torah... its relevancy to today, always.”
Rabbi Soloveitchik shared his philosophy that “any book of the Torah must be a source of Torah knowledge, a source of halachos, of rules of conduct, a source of morality, a source on which one may draw from time to time, when he’s in doubt, in confusion... An igeres is a historical document, not a source of knowledge.” And Biblical stories, stressed Rabbi Soloveitchik, are not merely stories. There are laws and directions in life to be learned from these narrative moments in the Torah. Eliezer and Rebecca at the well, said Rabbi Soloveitchik, singling out one example, “is assigned more space” than the Laws of the Sabbath.
As Rabbi Soloveitchik approached the conclusion of his 90-minute lecture, he asked his listeners what Jewish law we can learn from the Purim story told in the Book of Esther. There are multiple laws that can be derived, but Rabbi Soloveitchik was searching for the one that stood apart from the others. The “central halachah in Megillas Esther,” he answered, “is the duty of the individual to sacrifice his life, if the destiny and the future of the community is at stake.” (And someone – in this case, Mordechai – may also advise or coerce him or her to give his life if it will save the people.)
Rabbi Soloveitchik didn’t spell it out, but perhaps Esther’s determination to have “her” book included in the Biblical canon went beyond a formal recognition of the salvation afforded the Jewish People. Her major intent may have been that her personal sacrifice – where she gave of her life, and could have in fact lost her life – would be conveyed to the generations as a proper approach for all Jews to take when they have the unique opportunity to act on behalf of their People. After all, the other halachos observed during the holiday show Purim to be a celebration of Jewish connection, shared fate, and shared fortune.
Judah S. Harris