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Lessons of Purim


March 7, 2023
Sondra Oster Baras

Today is Purim, one of the most joyous holidays of the Jewish calendar.  It commemorates the events recorded in the Book of Esther.  The wicked Haman plotted the destruction of the entire Jewish nation, but in the end, the plot was foiled and the Jews were saved.  It is a marvelous story, set in the ancient court of Persia, and complete with suspense and intrigue.  Mordecai and Esther are the two Jewish heroes who stand in opposition to Haman and end up convincing Ahasuerus to abort the plan and hang Haman and his 10 sons for treason. 

Interestingly, God’s name is not mentioned once in the Book of Esther, the only book of the Bible where He is seemingly absent.  But then again, that is the point.  It is a story of human activities, complete with passions, jealousy and revenge.  And it all seems to work out as a result of human initiative.  But so many of the events seem to unfold on their own, as irony sparks irony.  Haman who is plotting to kill the Jews because of his hatred for Mordecai, ends up having to parade Mordecai through the streets of Shushan in a demonstration of adulation for Mordecai.  The very scaffold that Haman prepares for Mordecai is used to hang Haman himself. 

So is God there?  Of course He is.  Coincidences such as these don’t just happen. They are directed from above.  And one of the most important messages of the Book is this one — even when you don’t see God’s hand in action, He is there.  As we go about our daily lives, and encounter challenges and threats, we pray to God for help and salvation.  And then when salvation comes, in the form of a doctor who provides a life-saving treatment, a security officer who rescues you from harm or a business opportunity that secures your economic future, this is not just happenstance.  It is God!

On Purim we celebrate the salvation of the Jews of Persia as representative of the many persecutions that we have suffered over the years, and the fact that we have survived them all.  But the irony and tongue-in-cheek style of the Purim story sets the tone for the day’s celebrations.  The ironic switch between the fates of Mordecai and Haman are referred to in Jewish tradition as “the switch” or “the turn” referring to the line in the Book of Esther: “the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been turned for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy” (Esther 9:22). 

Yes, everything in the Book of Esther was turned on its head.  So on Purim day, we also turn everything around — we dress in costume to reflect that we are not who we usually are, we drink alcohol to lose a bit of our usual coherence and seriousness, and we revel in what is often referred to as “Purim Torah” — silly parodies of serious texts to reflect joyous occasions in our own days. 

It is a day of rejoicing.  We go to synagogue both in the evening and in the morning for the reading of the Purim Story.  But we also party.  Synagogues host parties, friends host parties.  We eat delicious filled cookies in a triangle shape, referred to as either Haman’s pockets or Haman’s ears.  It is meant to mock Haman and rejoice in the foiling of his evil plot.  On Purim afternoon, we gather with friends and family and enjoy a festive meal.  But it is usually not the serious fare of Shabbat.  We choose themes — meals that resemble different countries, meals that resemble the Persian court.  Or whatever any family considers fun.  We decorate the table and of course come in costume to the meal.  Lots of giggles and laughter. 

This year, though, Purim falls during a particularly difficult time in Israel.  It is not the first time that terrorism has struck just before Purim.  Just last week three young men were murdered in Judea and Samaria.  Twenty years ago, three young teen-agers were murdered in my own community just a few days before Purim.  But we do our best to put the somber feelings aside and live the day for what it is — a reminder that when things seemed darkest, God was there to save us.  And we hold on to that thought as a source of hope to get us through dark times.

Today, Israel is also in turmoil as a result of political discord between the government and the opposition that has spilled over to angry  demonstrations.  The mood is difficult and people are struggling to keep faith in their political leaders. There is anger on both sides of the divide while most people are trying to understand how we got here.  We have always had disagreements and often vocal ones.  But it has never affected the overall atmosphere of solidarity and brotherhood that is so fundamental to our existence as a nation. This, then, is a totally new sort of threat to Israel.  And we certainly need God’s help to heal the wounds and calm the anger.

As we rejoice this Purim with all the trappings of costumes, wine, sweets and song, I pray that God will remember His salvation of the people of Shushan and save us from all that is plaguing us today.  But we must  remember that everyone in Israel celebrates this holiday.  Children of all ages and from all backgrounds and areas of the country, don their costumes and head out to the streets to celebrate.  And we all give tasty portions and sweets to our neighbors (Esther 9:22) as symbols of our unity and solidarity. 

We are joined by Purim. We are joined by the Esther story.   I pray that those who sow dissension amongst us will be foiled by the history and destiny that bind us as a people.

4 thoughts on “Lessons of Purim”

  1. I feel that the book of Esther is God’s way of being represented by his earthly ambassadors the Jewish people. Interestingly Israel is also not mentioned, though Jerusalem and Judah are mentioned as Mordechai’s origin. You definitely see God’s hand protecting his people from beginning to end. The book is a literal masterpiece.

  2. When Hadassah tells the people of Yisrael to fast, I see God. For who else would a Yisraelite fast to? However, had the Yisraelites been obedient and returned to Yisrael when several exodus had already happened, the story of Purim in that country, would not have taken place.

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