The Challenge of Purim

We begin our celebration of Purim tomorrow evening with our Megillah reading. On Sunday morning with our Purim carnival. Purim is a story for the ages. Haman, the villain of the story, is the archetypical anti-Semite, the kind of government official that we have seen often in Jewish history. He is a wicked man whose lies about the Jews threaten the very existence of the Jewish people. “There is a certain people,” Haman tells the King, “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.” Haman wants to rid the Kingdom of the Jewish People.

The Megillah was likely written between 400 and 300 BCE. The historical setting is accurate, yet the events described in the Megillah likely never occurred as they are described. The story is read best as a farce. After all, what Jewish father, let alone a holy man like Mordechai, enters his daughter in a beauty contest to compete for the chance to marry a King? Yet the story told in the Megillah falls into that category of stories that may not be literally true, but that capture the truth of experience.

I love the story of Purim because it turns history on its head. Instead of the Jewish community helplessly suffering at the hands of an evil ruler, as has been the case throughout our history, Mordechai and Esther manage to turn the tables on their enemies and emerge victorious. Instead of Haman getting rid of the Jews, the Jews get rid of Haman and his allies. But the story also celebrates violence, and this troubles me. If you do not know what I mean, pick up a Bible and read the Book of Esther to the end.

The Torah does not command us to celebrate Purim, like it commands us to celebrate Passover, Succoth, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, or Yom Kippur. The Megillah itself that tells us that Mordechai and Esther decreed this Jewish holiday. The rabbis of the Talmud debated whether Purim should be included in the calendar of Jewish holidays. Should they ratify Mordechai and Esther’s edict to celebrate this holiday throughout the ages? Many Rabbis opposed the holiday. They argued, “Have we not had enough oppressions? Do we want to increase them by recalling the oppression of Haman?” The Talmud tells us that “Eighty elders, including more than thirty prophets, have been unwilling to grant recognition to the feast of Purim.” Perhaps they understood that our enemies would use the more lurid parts of the story of Purim against us, thereby leading to greater antisemitism. For example, David Duke, the White Supremacist, describes Purim on his website as a festival of hatred that shows the world how Jews view Gentiles.

Of course, Haman and his ilk represent absolute evil, the kind of radical evil that we associate with a Pharaoh or a Hitler. These are men with whom no compromise was possible. One of the challenges in our own day is to distinguish between the evil of Haman, which needs to be confronted and eradicated, and the actions of enemies with whom we may be able to reach out and make peace. In this respect we might learn from the actions of the Hasidic Master Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov. During the Purim celebrations, the Rabbi announced to his disciples, “Saddle up the horses, we are going to blot out the name of Haman.” Not knowing what their meant, they followed him to a local inn, where the Polish peasants were involved in a wild party. “These men are our enemies,” said the disciples, to one another. “What does our Rebbe mean to do?”

The Rebbe and his disciples entered to inn. The peasants saw them and stopped their carousing. The music stopped. Tension filled the air. You could hear a pin drop. Then the Rebbe looked at one of the peasants and stretched out his hand. The peasants looked at one another. Slowly, one of them stepped forward and took the Rebbe’s hand in his own. They started dancing. The musicians began playing. In a few moments, the disciples of the Rebbe and the local peasants were dancing with one another.

This ought to be the message of Purim. Our ultimate goal should be that we work to rid the world of hatred, not of those who hate. On Purim may we re-dedicate ourselves to achieving the vision of Isaiah, that “nations shall not lift up sword against nations, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Shabbat Shalom