Purim and Pesach are both very joyous holidays, but in different contexts. Purim is filled with a giddy happiness, the result of a back-story written in broad strokes and outsized characters. Pesach is filled with deeply satisfying joy, its story one of dramatic tension and meaningful detail. Perhaps that distinction is appropriate because Pesach commemorates not so much an ending as a beginning – a journey destined for the Promised Land, and Purim celebrates a victory over the forces of evil in an otherwise blessed and prosperous society.
One of our members, Paul Friedman, pointed out to me that this year, the 39th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s final speech occurs on the first night of Pesach. In his speech of encouragement to the sanitation workers of Memphis, he sounded the chillingly prophetic observation that he "might not make it to the Promised Land." The next day, he was assassinated. He was 39 years old; the speech is now a lifetime behind us.
It is ironic that we celebrate the first steps of our pilgrimage to the Promised Land on the same night that we remember a man who had been to the mountaintop, but would not get there with his people. That ability to hold beginnings and ends in one thought is typically Jewish – Simchat Torah, the High Holy Days, Ashkenazi customs of baby-naming are all examples of the same juxtaposition. This intersection demands reflection; if we are called to continually renew the journey, then how can Pesach call us to renew the vision of Dr. King?
Maybe Purim, a month earlier (at the end of the Biblical year) holds the answer. Only by standing up to those who poison minds to oppress others can we hope to be truly blessed and prosperous. It is only four weeks from Purim to Pesach, but it is eleven months from Pesach to Purim, from our new beginning to our holiday of triumph. During that time we face the historical and contemporary challenges and opportunities of the Jewish year, from the struggle against Pharaoh the King to the struggle against the Pharaoh within. Only if we can triumph over the Amaleks/Hamans of our time can we celebrate genuinely at Purim.
In every generation, says the Haggadah, a person is obligated to see herself/himself as if personally brought out of Egypt. A generation has passed since Dr. King, but we must continue his journey to the Promised Land of justice and equality.