PURIM 2024

I shared this piece on my podcast, Wrestling and Dreaming. You can hear the podcast at wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com or other sources for podcasts.

         This Saturday evening begins the celebration of Purim, the happiest holiday on the Jewish calendar. Purim is a time for loud celebrations both in the synagogue and in homes, celebrations which include costumes, noisemakers, excessive eating (and in some settings, drinking), bad jokes and general merrymaking. 

         So, it is natural to ask the question: Should we be celebrating Purim this year in the “usual way”? Given all of the sadness surrounding us: the rise of anti-Semitism, the horrific October 7 attacks in Israel and the war in Gaza, perhaps we should eliminate Purim celebrations this year.

         I would argue that while we might tone done some of the celebrations a bit, we should still celebrate Purim and have an appropriate amount of fun during the holiday. It will be a respite from the sadness and fear which has surrounded Jews in recent months and remind our children- and ourselves- that our tradition values joy as it values concern for each other and for the world in general. 

         But I do think there is one thing that we must do this Purim. It is always a major part of the observance of the holiday, but this year calls for particular attention to this most significant tradition. We should pay close attention to the reading of Megillat Esther, the biblical book of Esther. 

         The account of the Jews of Shushan’s victory over Haman, and the story of the courage of Esther and Mordecai is told in great detail and we sometimes pay too much attention to drowning out Haman’s name and making jokes about some of the absurdities in the story as it is told. There are some critical questions raised by a close reading of the Megilla and, this year especially, we should pay attention to those questions and consider them seriously. 

         I am going to pose three questions based on the story in the book of Esther and I encourage you to take some time before, during or after the holiday to consider them seriously and wrestle with some of the issues they raise. 

         First, while Haman’s vendetta against the Jews stems from Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to him, Haman approaches the king with this argument based on lies, half-truths and facts taken out of context: 

         “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” (Esther 3:8)

         I would ask you to think about these questions: What are the lies, half-truths and out of context facts that are used today to fuel anti-Semitism? Is it important for Jews, to actively challenge those arguments with facts or is the anti-Semitism we experience today simply spread by hate-filled people who have no desire to change their way of thinking about Jews making any attempt to discourage such thinking only a frustrating waste of time and energy?

         My second question focuses on one of the most meaningful verses in the entire book. Mordecai reminds Esther that she should not deny being a Jew as she will not be able to escape the fate of her people: 

         “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace.” (Esther 4:13)

         This verse inspires these questions: How are you feeling today about expressing your Jewish identity in public? Are you tempted to hide your identity as the climate of anti-Semitism worsens or does this make you more determined to identify publicly as a Jew? Will you feel uncomfortable buying Pesach foods in supermarkets or bringing matzah sandwiches to work or school or will you be even more visible in your observance of the holiday in defiance of those who hate? 

         Finally, I offer one last question. In chapter 9 of Megillat Esther, we read of the actions taken after Haman’s execution. We read: 

         “The rest of the Jews, those in the king’s provinces, likewise mustered and fought for their lives. They disposed of their enemies, killing seventy-five thousand of their foes; but they did not lay hands on the spoil. That was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar and they rested on the fourteenth day and made it a day of feasting and merrymaking”.

         This verse may have troubled you in the past as it certainly has troubled me. But, how are you reading this verse this year? What does this verse have to say to us given the Hamas attacks and the war in Gaza? Do you understand and appreciate it today more than in the past or does it trouble you even more deeply? 

         I hope that you find these questions meaningful and that you will take time to consider your personal answers in light of today’s world.  

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