Purim: Divine Insomnia


The Hidden Script of Your Life

Many important events mark our lives. But what value or significance would you attribute to a trivial experience, like, say, a case of insomnia?

On a broader scale how do you see your overall life: Is your life disjointed or cohesive? As you live from day to day, do you ever feel that in your struggle for survival you may be missing the bigger picture? Does the minutiae of your schedule (work, pressures) shroud your larger priorities – like finding love and building a relationship? In time of pain and anguish, are you able to recognize that these dark moments may be part of a greater story? Can you see the thread that connects the fragments of your journey, or do you just move from moment to moment, trying to make the best of what comes your way?

Well, Purim teaches us a thing or two about the seemingly random events in our lives.

The great codifier of Jewish law Maharil (Rabbi Yaakov Halevi, 1360-1427) writes, that the Megillah reader raises his voice when he begins reading the words in the Megiilah (the scroll read on Purim relating the entire Purim story) “that night the king’s sleep was disturbed,” because the primary Purim miracle begins at this point.

Due to his insomnia, the king ordered that the book of chronicles, which recorded the history of the king’s reign, be brought and read to him. The story they read was how Mordechai, a while back, had saved the king’s life from an assassination attempt. This evoked the king’s appreciation to reward Mordechai, which began a series of events, as related in the Megillah, which led to the Purim miracle rescuing the entire Jewish nation from annihilation.

This reflects one of the most powerful themes of Purim: What you see is not what you get. On the surface level, the king’s restless night – as well as many other seemingly unrelated and insignificant events in the story – would be dismissed as a trivial fluke. In truth, it turns out that this becomes a critical juncture that changed the course of history! Had the king slept peacefully (and why shouldn’t he?), he would not have been reminded of Mordechai saving his life and the rest of the narrative would never have unfolded as it had.

The Purim story – and the story behind the story – teaches us how to look at our lives in a completely new and revolutionary way.

The Talmud says: “On who reads the Megillah backwards has not fulfilled the mitzvah.” Why in the world would anyone want to read the story backwards?! The Baal Shem Tov explains the statement this way: Anyone who reads the Purim narrative as if it happened “back when” in the past (in effect, reading the story backwards, with the end being closer to us than the beginning), has not fulfilled the mitzvah, which demands of us to read and see the story as if it is unfolding and playing itself out today, from the beginning of the story till its conclusion.

The story of Purim is the story of our lives. Our lives, just like the Purim narrative, is driven by a hidden script, which is hard to recognize at the time, but in retrospect patterns emerge as we discover the underlying narrative that leads to salvation. A bigger picture takes shape from the connecting dots of seemingly disconnected events, including the smallest details that we may completely ignore and disregard due to their triviality.

Imagine: A man can’t fall asleep and the destiny of a people is changed forever! How many other quirky details in existence are affecting our very lives as we speak?

Long before Kierkegaard wrote that “you can only understand life backwards, but we must live it forwards,” we have the story of Purim that tells us about the mysterious internal drama that shapes our outer lives. G-d’s name is never mentioned in the entire Megillah, emphasizing that the Divine Choreographer remains behind the scenes, even as He orchestrates a series of events, which may appear random to us, when in fact they are frames of a larger drama unfolding.

Purim teaches us how to discern the hidden narrative playing itself out in our lives today. How to see the forest for the trees. It helps us transcend the moment and connect it to the birds’ eye vision of your life story.

So the next time you cannot sleep – or experience some else seemingly trivial – you never know: It may be the beginning of your salvation.


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Divine insomnia
14 years ago

Your work is always meaningful and relevant, this particular commentary,divine insomnia, gives me a personal message, I am struggling to sleep soundly and perhaps I need to acknowledge and look beyond the obvious. Thank you for your words of wisdom.

sarah weintraub
14 years ago

This is very interesting and powerful.
Purim Sameach

14 years ago

Hi Rabbi,

My name is Meredith and I am an avid reader of your wonderful column. I am 23 years old and from New York, and am spending a year abroad in the Netherlands. This Purim I attended synagogue and heard the Purim story told in Dutch, with my boyfriend translating in my ear. Listening to each word of the translation, I somehow heard the Megillah reading in a way I never had. I found that I had somehow never listened fully to the end of the story, which states that the Jews murdered over seventy-five-thousand people, even though no man stood in their way. I am interested to know if you believe the Jews were justified in this genocide of their enemies. Isnt it a bit hypocritical to fight for freedom from attack, and then launch ones own attack? Please help me reconcile this thought, as I worry that perhaps I should start celebrating Purim as not only a day of celebration but as a day of mourning.

Thank you so very much!

14 years ago

You are sensible with backward knowledge. It explains the contest. Recognized before shabath.

14 years ago

The explanation for the name of G-d not being mentioned in the megila seems a bit mystical; the divine choreographer remained behind the scenes. That is an iteresting and framatic way of putting it. Could it simply be the result of the practical action of King Ahashverosh deciding what to include and what to omit in the story which he had obviously read?

ruth housman
11 years ago

I enjoyed, as I most often do, your commentary, Divine Insomnia. The Purim story is very important for all the reasons highlighted. In effect, everything is imporant, and if we stay awake to this, we perceive a Greater Hand scirbing our days, meaning our stories are scripted. This never lets us off the hook, because we must act ethically in choosing at this level, to act with kindness, respect and love, performing what we call tikkun olam. The Purim story is the ultimate teaching story because the Hidden Face of G_d is just so evident, throughout, these myriad coincidences and thus, not so hidden

11 years ago

Your statement,Imagine: A man can’t fall asleep and the destiny of a people is changed forever! I dont quite agree – our destiny is and was and will be determined by ONE and is part of ONE. Our power is to realize that, acknowledge ONE, give ONE (HaShem)a bissel Shvach and otherwise serve HIM. Our job is to use that power and a good starting point is to acknowledge that everything is from HIM, everything is for the Best, (good, bad or otherwise) and everything – like insomnia or a leaf falling or even the chance to make Teshuva – is part of HIM, too. Torah vMitzvot!

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