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TCS Bulletin - The Meaning of Purim

I sometimes wonder what someone would think if the first time they stepped into a synagogue happened to coincide with the celebration of Purim. They would see Judaism as a carnival, with people dressed up in a variety of colorful costumes. They would witness a Judaism filled with noise, as people cheer and boo the heroes and villains of our story. And they might even see Judaism as a religion which really enjoys drinking (it is said in the Talmud that on Purim a person should drink so that they no longer know the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai”).

Purim stands out in the Jewish calendar as a rather unique festival; we really have no other festival to which it can be compared. In some ways it is our own little piece of “March Madness”.

I have always loved Purim. As a child it was one of the highlights of our Jewish day school calendar. All the children would arrive in a wonderful array of costumes for the Purim fancy dress parade (my personal favorite was when my mother made me a costume to be an airplane). And on what other day of the year were we allowed to shout out, stamp our feet, and generally make as much noise as possible in the synagogue? It was also a story, which I enjoyed as a child; it had its heroes with Mordecai and Esther, the wicked villain Haman, and the comedy character of Achashverosh. What more could a child want?

The challenge with Purim is that the Purim story of my childhood did not necessarily match up with the Purim story I began to discover later in my teenage years. The characters remained the same, but the story did not end with celebration at the hanging of Haman, instead the story contained massacres of the enemies of the Jews throughout Achashverosh’s Kingdom. This was a far more gruesome story than I remembered from my childhood, and it offered a far more complicated end, as we Jews did to our enemies what they had intended to do to us.

The drinking, the carnival atmosphere, and the fancy dress may all be considered as a way by which we avoid looking too deeply at the disturbing parts of the story which we are supposed to be celebrating. All of the festivities distract us from thinking about the massacres which were perpetrated and instead focus our attention on the festival’s “children’s story”.

However, this leaves us with two important questions in relation to Purim: Why do we celebrate this festival and why was the Book of Esther included in our Tanach?

To answer these questions it is important to strip away both the challenging and children’s elements of the story. At its core the Book of Esther is a story about Jewish survival in Diaspora. It is a cautionary tale about the dangers of being a minority in a foreign society. The story exposes the risks involved when the Jewish community falls foul of the ruling authorities.

But the Book of Esther also provides a formula for surviving in Diaspora. The Jewish community must engage with the governance of society. At the time of Mordecai and Esther it meant that they needed to get close to the King, to Achashverosh. Today, for us, it means that we have a responsibility to engage with the American political process. We need to recognize that we have a political voice (a gift which Jews have not always possessed) and we have to be prepared to use it. As the forthcoming elections continue to dominate the news cycle (at the time of writing I am assuming this will still be the case in March) we need to educate ourselves about the issues, the candidates and their policies. And then in November, everyone who is eligible should vote (as a foreigner I do not have this privilege).

At its core Purim is a call to political activism, and this year it is a call to vote, to exercise a political voice just like Mordecai and Esther did in years gone by.

About Rabbi Danny

Rabbi Danny
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