The Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin (64b), amidst its discussion of the prohibition against performing the molekh ritual (the ancient pagan practice to bring one’s child through fire), cites different views as to what specific ritual transgresses this prohibition. Rava is cited as describing the molekh ritual as something resembling “mashvarta de-puria.” Rashi explains this expression as referring to a practice which was observed by youngsters on Purim, whereby they would jump over fire. The youths would dig a trench of some sort in the ground, light a fire inside the trench, and then playfully jump over the fire. According to Rava, the molekh ritual which the Torah prohibits resembled this act of jumping over a fire (while holding one’s child).
How might we understand this unusual Purim custom? Should we view it as just an arbitrarily chosen form of silly merriment in the comical spirit of the day, or should we perhaps expect to find some symbolic connection between this practice and the Purim celebration?
Rav Asher Weiss creatively suggested that this practice perhaps alludes to the fire that raged upon Mount Sinai at the time Benei Yisrael received the Torah. In Sefer Devarim (4:11), Moshe describes how the mountain was engulfed by fire that burned “until the heart of the sky,” and a thick cloud of smoke covered the area. This was a frightening and intimidating scene to behold, and yet, Moshe says, “You approached and stood underneath the mountain.” Normally, people flee from raging flames of fire. But at Mount Sinai, the people joyfully answered God’s call summoning them to the mountain, eager and enthusiastic to hear His word and receive the Torah, and so despite the fire, they approached the mountain.
In the aftermath of the Purim miracle, as the Gemara (Shabbat 88a) famously teaches, the Jews reaffirmed their acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai. And it is perhaps this aspect of the Purim story, Rav Weiss explained, that was commemorated through the seemingly strange practice of jumping over fire on Purim. This was done to reenact the people’s fervent desire to approach the Almighty and accept His commands despite the fire, to show that our quest for closeness with God supersedes even the instinctive fear of fire.
Oftentimes, Torah commitment strikes us as intimidating. The “fire” – the purity and loftiness of Torah seems too remote and beyond the limits of our human capabilities. Accepting the challenging requirements and restrictions of the Torah can be overwhelming. This is especially so in circumstances such as those of the Jews in the Persian exile, who lived and participated in a foreign culture characterized by decadence, indulgence and vanity, as graphically and even humorously described in Megillat Ester. While living such a lifestyle, the demands of the Torah might appear as frightening as a wildfire – something that threatens to destroy and ruin all that one enjoys and is familiar with in his life. However, as Rashi writes in his commentary to Masekhet Shabbat, the “ahavat ha-neis” – the love for God aroused by the great Purim miracle – inspired the Jews of the time to reaffirm their Torah commitment. After having fallen into spiritual indifference borne out of intimidation, their joy and love of God triumphed over their fears and inhibitions. Aroused and inspired by the extraordinary events they had just experienced, the people raced towards the fire of Sinai, eager to recommit themselves to the Torah and observe it as best they could under their far-from-ideal circumstances.
“A person is obligated to become inebriated on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordekhai’” (Megilla 7b). One of the effects of inebriation is the loss of inhibition. The drinking and merriment of Purim are perhaps intended, at least in part, to break our natural feelings of ambivalence and intimidation surrounding our relationship with the Almighty. Just as Ester overcame her initial reluctance to approach Achashveirosh, so did the Jews overcome their feelings of distance from God, and they renewed their relationship with him – and we, too, experience this renewal through the unique joy and festivity of Purim. We break our innate inhibitions and recognize that no matter what we have done or haven’t done, no matter what our current religious standing might be, the King is eager for us to approach Him and joyously serve Him to the best of our ability. And thus even when Torah observance seems intimidating as a wildfire, we run towards it, enthusiastic and energized by our awareness of God’s eternal, everlasting love for His people.