Purim is a Great Holiday

by Arliene Botnick, February 23, 2022

Purim is one of the most delightful of our holidays. It is festive, joyous, and irreverent. We wear costumes, make a lot of loud noise, eat delicious hamantaschen, and are reminded to send gifts to our friends and to the needy. But is Purim just a delightful holiday and engaging story, or is it a historical reality? We read from Megillat Esther and delight in a tale filled with intrigue, foolishness, exaggeration, chance, coincidence, but we cannot forget that it actually is a tale that – though we celebrate so joyously – could have ended with all of us, as Jews, being slaughtered. But it ends well, and we celebrate and we annually read the story from a book of the Bible that does not even mention God’s name, to say that, as Jews, we did and we will survive!

The story takes place in Persia, a very long time ago, perhaps in the 400’s BCE, under the reign of a king called Ahasuerus. When he demands that one of his wives, Vashti, appear before him at an elaborate banquet wearing only her crown, thus suggesting perhaps she wear only her crown, nothing else. Vashti refuses to come to the party naked and is exiled or murdered (Poor Vashti!). But she has become a heroine (hero) of sorts. She stood up and held her ground against male bullying and has become a role model for women’s rights. I wonder if she knew she was an early women’s libber. And then, suggesting male shallowness, Ahasuerus is convinced that a new wife is to be chosen not for her mind, not for her wisdom, but for her beauty. Definitely not the way we feel we should choose a partner today. So Esther wins the beauty contest after being convinced by her uncle (or her cousin) Mordechai to enter it. She is warned not to divulge her Jewish identity because, as a Jew, she couldn’t have been in the contest (antisemitism even in those days). At about the same time, her uncle/cousin Mordecai just happens, by chance, to be outside the walls of the king’s courtyard and he overhears a plot to kill the king and, what does a good person, loyal to the monarchy do? (and of course, Mordechai is a good person) He tells Esther to tell the king of the impending plot and she does so, without apparently letting Ahasuerus know that it was Mordechai, her cousin/ uncle, a Jew who is saving the king’s life. But all this will be recorded in the royal Chronicles which by chance will ultimately be read on one sleepless night by Ahasuerus.

And we have to remember the villain, Haman, the king’s main adviser, really doesn’t like Mordechai. Actually, he really despises Mordechai, and therefore he decides to despise each and every Jew and murder them! (I think we’ve heard that one before). It seems that Mordechai refused to bow down before Haman, which for the megalomaniac Haman was unacceptable, therefore, what must he do? He decides to kill not only Mordechai but all Jews. (Doesn’t make sense, does it?) And he thinks so little of Jewish lives, that, by just a tossing of lots (which is what the word Purim means) the day is selected on which the destruction of the Jews is to take place (the 13th of Adar). So we are about to celebrate what could’ve been our annihilation. But we know how it ends. We know why we celebrate. Haman, the quintessential Jew-hater, the powerful, influential person was able to sway people by suggesting that we’re just too different. He convinced the king that “there’s a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep the king’s laws.” Haman readily convinces the king, who obviously is more interested in partying and alcohol than in thinking, to agree. But neither Haman nor the King knows that Esther is Jewish, nor that Mordechai is her relative. Mordechai realizes that this is a dire situation and he sends a message to ask Esther to beg her husband to save her people. Unfortunately, Esther is forbidden to appear before the King unless she has been summoned. She is afraid!

Mordechai reminds her that she shouldn’t think she’s safe just because she’s in the king’s palace. (In other words, assimilation won’t save her) and he also suggests that if she won’t help, help we’ll come from another place (perhaps a covert reference to God). Esther has a plan, and the plan is to reach the king the best way the king can be reached and that’s through a party and lots of alcohol.

That very same night, just by chance, the king needed to do some reading. There wasn’t much on television, so he read the court Chronicles, in which he discovers that Mordechai had actually saved the king from death. Better late than never, the king wants to show his gratitude to Mordechai and asks advice from Haman about how to honour a great and loyal citizen. Haman, egoistically, thinking that it is he who will be honoured, suggests that the good Samaritan wear royal robes and be escorted on horseback through the city in honour. You can only imagine how upset Haman is when he discovers it’s the man whom he hates, the man who is slated to hang, the very same Mordechai, who is to be honoured and Haman himself is to lead him through the city and honour him.

Haman, a slow learner, still doesn’t see the writing on the wall, and hasn’t changed his mind about hanging M! Nor has the king made the connection that the Jews should not be killed since it was Mordechai who had saved the king’s life. (I guess even when we do the right things we aren’t necessarily rewarded). Esther hosts a second party at which she begs the king to save her people. The King would like to withdraw the edict but he can’t (strange laws in Persia at that time) but he can allow the Jews to fight back, which they do with the help of those who apparently support them in the kingdom. On the 14th of Adar, the Jews are alive and celebrating and it is a day of joy, feasting, and gladness. And on the very same gallows that Haman had built to hang Mordechai, Haman and his family are hung.

It’s a great story; it’s a great holiday. It might’ve happened and it might not have happened, but what it means is true and timeless. Assimilation won’t save us. We have been and will be victims of discrimination and unjust laws and hatred. There will always be Hamans among us and somehow, with God in the background or the foreground, we will stand up against our enemies. There are traditionally four mitzvot for Purim, emphasizing the positive side of the holiday.

1. Mishloach manot – sending gifts to family and friends.

2. Matanot La evyonim – sending gifts to those in need.

3. Feasting and having a great meal

4. Mikra M’gillah – reading the Megillat Esther.

The story is a paradigm of Jewish survival. It’s a story in which we should regale. Our sages tell us in the Olam Haba, the world to come, when all other holidays cease to be celebrated, we will continue to rejoice in Purim. In times of crisis, in all times, we have to be there for one another. We can’t let internal strife tear us apart. We have to fight for justice for ourselves and for all people!

Chag Purim Sameach!

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