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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Dovid Campbell

From Purim to Passover

Experiencing the Divine play...

This period between the holidays of Purim and Passover has always struck me as a difficult transition. The atmosphere of Purim, with its dancing, drinking, and gift-giving, is replaced by earnest cleaning and the search for every last breadcrumb. On Purim, the story of the Megillah was accompanied by festive costumes and boisterous groggers. On Passover, the story is carefully recounted within the context of the Seder, a word which literally means “order.” And yet, despite the many differences between these holidays, they are united by a unique virtue that we tend to undervalue — playfulness.

Jewish theologian Martin Buber called play “the exaltation of the possible.” In play, we temporarily create new realities that are bound only by the possibilities of our imagination. A group of friends, each with a family and substantial responsibilities, might suddenly decide that for the next hour they will focus all of their energies on throwing a rubber ball through a hoop. Another group, perhaps high-powered business executives, might sit down to a board game with rules so complex that they essentially create a small world of their own. Playfulness always entails the momentary abandonment of what once seemed so fixed and necessary.

Why do we do this? Why do we find it so worthwhile to immerse ourselves in alternative rules and realities? Biologists point to important cognitive and physiological benefits of play, and some sociologists identify play as the driving force behind all human culture. Whatever the case may be, Judaism introduces us to play as a spiritual value, a fundamental element of reality.

The Jewish sages describe the Torah as both the blueprint of creation and God's “plaything,” a sort of Divine toy. Similarly, the first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, explains that we form a connection with God by joyously participating in His playful creation of the cosmos. Through this lens, play becomes a spiritual declaration, an affirmation of the endless possibility, mystery, and opportunity of this world.

If we want a model of this spiritual playfulness, we can turn to King David. The youngest son of eight, a simple shepherd, he nevertheless faced off against the giant Goliath. It seemed like an absurd decision, and it was an early indication that David saw possibility where others could only imagine defeat. His Psalms are filled with the constant prospect of restored justice and renewed happiness. Perhaps most importantly, David refused to take himself too seriously. When he finally succeeded in returning the Holy Ark to Jerusalem, he danced before it “with all his might.” Many were shocked to see their king wearing simple clothes and dancing in the streets. But David was simply exalting in the possible, throwing himself into God's play.   

Returning to our holidays, we can begin to appreciate why play is essential to both Purim and Passover. The central theme of Purim is unexpected reversals. Esther, a humble Jewish woman with no desire for power, is elevated to royalty. The Jewish people, living comfortably and anticipating the rebuilding of their Temple, are suddenly threatened with destruction. Haman, with all of his influence and ambition, is humiliated and hanged on the very gallows he built for Mordechai. In the Megillah, normal political realities evaporate, and everything seems joyously possible.

But the Purim story never explicitly mentions God, and its miracles are hidden and subtle. Contrast this with the Passover story, in which reality itself comes apart at the seams. Moses performs open miracles from the moment he returns to Egypt, and the Egyptians witness the familiar laws of nature turning against them. Absolutely everything is revealed to be in a state of Divine play, and from that awareness arises the uniqueness of the Jewish mission. While other nations assumed there was something necessarily fixed about reality, something they could manipulate or avoid, the Jews at Passover recognized that the best way to live was to become partners in the Divine game. 

This active participation is reflected in the Passover Seder. While the purpose of the Megillah was our hearing the story of Purim, the purpose of the Seder is our telling the story of Passover. On Purim, we wear costumes, but on Passover we actually seek to embody the experience of the Jews leaving Egypt, visualizing what they saw and eating what they ate. As the Jewish sages write, in every generation we are required to view ourselves as if we personally came out of Egypt. Just as the events of Passover revealed a greater degree of Divine playfulness, the holiday of Passover asks us to become more active players ourselves.


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