Everyone knows that the Jewish year begins in Tishrei, with Rosh Hashana. But surprise, surprise -- there are actually two ways of calculating the order of our calendar. The more familiar version follows the calculations made by Hillel the Elder in the Talmudic era, and refers to the months by their Babylonian names -- Tishrei, Cheshvan, etc.
The other method is that used by the Torah itself. The Torah text does not assign names to the months, but rather refers to the "first month," "second month," etc. The "first month" is Nissan, featuring Passover, the anniversary of our liberation from Egypt. In the other calendar, Nissan would be the seventh month!
Jews seem to have a knack for complicating things. Actually, it is the natural result of looking at things deeply. From that perspective, something fascinating emerges from the two ways we count time:
Tishrei is the month that marks the creation of mankind. For us mortal beings, this is the central event of human history. Thus, Tishrei is the first month.
God, however, sees things from a different angle. As expressed by His Torah, the emergence of the Jewish nation is the beginning of meaningful history. Thus, Nissan is the first month.
Adar, the last month, is often described as the "month of darkness." Through the miracle of Purim, the darkness turned to light.
Which brings us to Adar, the month of Purim, the month that directly precedes Nissan. From the Torah's perspective, Adar is the last month of the Hebrew calendar. Adar is often described as the "month of darkness," because during Haman's time we were closer than ever to suffering total annihilation. The light of Nissan, the light of liberation, could have been extinguished, had Haman's plot succeeded. Through the miracle of Purim, the darkness turned to light.
Fish and Fertility
Adar is the Jewish month of good fortune. In fact, Purim is the most joyful time of the entire year. "When Adar arrives, we increase our joy," say the Sages. How did Adar get its well-earned reputation for joy?
The astral sign of Adar is the fish (Pisces). Fish are very fertile, and for that reason are seen as a sign of blessing and fruitfulness. The Hebrew word for blessing is bracha, from the root letters bet, reish, kaff. In Jewish numerology (gematria), the letter bet has a value of 2, reish is 200 and kaff is 20. Each of these is the first plural in their number unit. What this tells us is that the Jewish concept of "blessing" is intertwined with fertility, represented by the fish of Adar. After all, if there is something good, why not let it increase?
The opposite of blessing is constraint or limitation. Adar is the month in which Haman threatened to not only limit our presence, but to erase it entirely. But destiny had a different plan.
Moses' Birth and Death
At the time of the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews were exiled to Babylon, which was later ruled by the Persian Empire. This empire eventually included most of the known world, placing the entire Jewish population under Persian authority, regardless of where they lived.
Haman, the wicked prime minister of Persia, threw lots and came up with a designated day to make his entire kingdom Judenrein, cleansed of Jews.
Haman's "lucky day" was the 13th of Adar. And when he observed that this day came up, seemingly by chance, he rejoiced -- because the 7th of Adar was the day that Moses died. Moses was the quintessential Jew; the Sages say that he is equal to the Jewish people collectively -- the head that controls the "body" of the nation, providing it with vision, articulation and direction. To Haman, the lot falling in Adar meant that his plan to destroy everything that Moses built was bound to succeed.
What Haman didn't know, however, was that the same 7th of Adar was also the day that Moses was born. What Haman presumed would be the day of Jewish national death, turned out to be a day of national rebirth.
Humility and the Fish
There is yet more significance to the fish as the astral sign of Adar.
Fish live their entire lives underwater, unobserved by the human eye. Our Sages tell us that blessing does not come to something that is under close observation, but only to something that is hidden from the eye. This is due to the direct relationship between modesty and blessing.
Of course, from a Western view, where fame and success are identical twins, modesty seems inversely related to blessing.
The Torah teaches, however, that the cost of all this exposure -- rather than a blessing, i.e. maximizing oneself -- is to risk becoming the sort of person who has no self, other than the mask that is donned in order to be the person that you think others would like to see.
Moses is described in the Torah as "the most humble person." He lived with modesty, and this became engrained in our national Jewish identity. We have always prized humility over pride. For this reason, the fish, the sign of Adar, is the penultimate sign of the Jewish people.
Celebration of Hidden Miracles
One might expect the Megillah to be replete with descriptions of the miracle of Haman's defeat, giving credit to the Author of all miracles. Yet what we find is very different. God's name is not mentioned even once in the entire narrative. The Megillah is a great dichotomy, where the Hero is always off stage, but yet the most central figure of the entire drama.
Of course, not everyone who reads the Megillah will notice God's subtle yet compelling presence. The events that He orchestrated are covered with many layers of seeming coincidence, political machinations, natural cause and effect. The Sages refer to this event as a "hidden miracle," meaning that it is within our ability to appreciate the multi-layered reality unfolded before us -- or just as easily to deny it and attribute everything to chance.
Which brings us to an important question: Why would God simultaneously conceal and reveal His presence? Why not rescue the Jews through a thunder and lightning extravaganza that would merit an MGM movie on the scale of The Ten Commandments?
To answer this question, we must first ask a far more fundamental one: Why is the world so complex, so full of apparent contradictions? The world has intricate order and awesome beauty, yet at the same time there is so much chaos and unspeakable horror. Why?
The answer is that the choice is up to us to look deep and acknowledge both aspects of reality. It is tempting to take refuge in superficial simplification, to ignore the cracks in the facade of perfection that we like to see when we look in the mirror. Of course, this requires its own bit of effort, like avoiding the news and ensconcing ourselves in the secure refuge of our comfortable cars and homes. All this entails some major denial.
Every so often God opens the gates wide enough to give us a message that can sustain us when things seem hopeless.
The opposite approach is to take masochistic pleasure in painting the world black. The toll that such people pay in bitterness and jaded cynicism is high, but they feel they are getting something precious in return, which is "seeing things as they are." The problem is that such people are as much in denial of reality as the first group.
The Jewish view is to see that chaos and order in fact do co-exist, and that each one has a purpose. We are meant to meet the challenges presented by life's hard side, and to find inspiration in the beauty and joy that we see just as readily when our eyes are open. Every so often God opens the gates wide enough to give us a message that can sustain us when things seem hopeless. The message is: "I am here now, as I have been all along, and I will always be here for you. Not just when the sea splits, or when My presence overwhelms you, but when you elect to choose to see Me."
And this is the essential message of Purim. It is about making that sort of choice -- the most significant and joyous choice you will ever make.
1) We read the Megillah twice, both at night (to celebrate the faith that we found in the midst of darkness) and during the day (to celebrate the fact that our faith was validated openly and joyously).
2) We give two kinds of food to at least one friend. This gift is not meant to alleviate need, but rather to create unity. We celebrate being part of a people who lives on miracles.
3) We give money to the poor. This spreads the pleasure of feeling cared for, and opens the hearts of both giver and recipient.
4) We strengthen our belief in God's presence in the real world by having a whopper of a feast. Invite all your friends. Wear a costume to celebrate the fact that things are not always as they seem. Drink until you are so intoxicated that you recognize there are no longer heroes and villains -- just characters in God's unending play that reveals His love and presence.