Purim is a day of unbridled joy, when we celebrate the downfall of our sworn enemy. Purim is also a day that is focused, oddly enough, on remembering.
“These days of Purim,” the Book of Esther says, “should be remembered and celebrated.” On the Shabbos before Purim, we read about the Torah’s instructions that we never forget the cowardly attacks of Amalek, the primordial nemesis of the Jewish people: “Remember,” the Torah says, “what Amalek did to you…” That Shabbat is even called “Shabbat Zachor” – the Shabbat of remembering.
Even wine, the beverage which seems to feature in every significant event in the Purim story, is associated by the Torah with memory: “Its memory was like wine” (Hosea, 14:8). Clearly, there is something special about Purim and memory. What does nostalgia have to do with joyful celebration?
Memories trigger an emotional reaction that is best described as bittersweet. They let us look back at times of joy and triumph, at familiar faces and comforting surroundings. No matter how they felt at the time, the good old days inspire thoughts of happy times spent in the warm sunshine and accompanied by smiles. “I can smile at the old days,” as it says in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s song Memory. “I was beautiful then...”
Our memories are bittersweet because those good times aren’t here anymore. They’re part of a past that we will never get back; wistfully, we wish they could have lasted. They inspire regrets, not parties. That hardly seems like the makings of a celebration, let alone a day of national ecstasy like Purim.
The purpose of memory is not to be nostalgic about past triumphs; it is to empower our present.
The Torah has a different view of the purpose of memory. The purpose of memory is not to be nostalgic about past triumphs; it is to empower our present. To understand how, consider the backdrop behind this holiday of Purim.
The basic story of Purim is quite simple. The wicked Haman had a plan to destroy the Jewish people completely. Through a variety of coincidences, God thwarted his plans, and instead of being destroyed, the Jews turned the tables on their enemies. The Jews were not only threatened by Haman; they had every reason to think that God Himself had abandoned them.
When Haman came to power, the Jews were 60 years removed from the worst disaster in their history. The first Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and the land of Israel had been completely laid waste. It was the first time since the days of Egypt—almost a thousand years earlier—that they had experienced a national tragedy like this, and they were still exiled in Persia, wondering what history had in store for them. They wondered, in fact, if God still cared for them at all.
The common feeling, in the words of the Sages, was: “Do a husband and wife who have divorced have any relationship with each other anymore?” God, as they saw it, had divorced them, expelled them from the Temple where they used to visit and connect with Him. What was done was done. All their glory was behind them.
We can imagine how this sneaking suspicion must have been confirmed in their minds by Haman’s ascendancy. Here was proof of their rejection: God was allowing them to be doomed, placing them under the grip of an enemy who was obsessed with their utter annihilation. They must have been ready to throw up their hands and surrender. And it was just at that moment of great darkness that God turned everything on its head.
It was just then that God showed them that He had been there the whole time, orchestrating events to bring about their salvation. He showed them that bygones were not bygones, that His love for His people was not restricted to their better days and was not some treasured relic of their past. He showed them that they had forgotten how to remember.
If we once left Egypt against all odds, it means that we are always capable of achieving redemption, no matter how bleak our circumstances. If we once stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, receiving the Torah, it means that we are always a people of destiny and purpose, a people whose contribution to the world is too important for God to let a Haman wipe us out. If God once dwelled among us in the Temple, it means He yearns to do so again; it means that we are always capable of having that relationship.
God may be hiding, but He is always there.
They had forgotten that Jewish memories do not remain in the past. They define who we are. They are the context for everything we do in the present and they teach us how to build a better future. Our memories are eternally present. And memories are precisely what we celebrate on Purim.
Just as God was present in those incredible days of Purim, He is present now, working hidden miracles.
Our pain and the imperfections of our world hold us back from joy. The gap between those perfect recollections and the realities of the present tempers our appreciation of the blessings of life. But Purim is that one day when we learned to move beyond those distinctions. It is when we realized that past greatness is never past, even in the darkest of presents. God loves us as much today as He did in our most powerful memories. On Purim, there are no barriers to feeling God’s care—and there are no barriers to our joy.
There are times when we feel like the Jews did under Haman’s black cloud, as if God is hiding His face. We may feel that life is taking us down detours we never expected, unable to see God’s plan. That is the crucial time to reach for those memories. The same God who loved us then, who showed us sunshine and happiness—He is still here, still calling us to greatness. We do not live in a vacuum of time. Our past infuses our present with meaning.
In this season of Purim, let’s remember most of all God’s love for us. Like the Jews in Esther’s kingdom, we cannot read God’s mind. We do not know His plans for us. But we remember our moments of closeness. We know that just as He was present in those incredible days of Purim, He is present now, working hidden miracles. We know that He is here today, helping us face down new enemies and threats, just as He did all those years ago.