Most of us are familiar with the story told in the Book of Esther. Haman, an evil minister of the Persian king, seeks revenge against the Jewish courtier, Mordechai, who refuses to bow down to him. Haman then spends a good deal of energy and his own money to coerce the king to annihilate the Jews. The king agrees, until it is revealed that his beloved queen is also a Jew. So instead, the king allows the Jews to have weapons to defend themselves, hangs Haman and his clan, and appoints Mordechai to a prestigious government position. The Jews have survived, the evil plan is foiled, and its instigator is killed. Time to celebrate!
“While in this particular instance the outcome was a favorable one, the mere possibility of a situation of mass murder of innocents is a terrifying one,” writes Mark Kirschenbaum in Tikkun Daily. And indeed there was a mass murder. “In recent years,” Kircshenbaum continues, “Purim has come under criticism from some Jewish thinkers, in large measure because of the bloodiness of the triumph at its conclusion (the Jews killed 75,000 Persians in a single day).” Is such a triumph to be celebrated? We are taught at Passover that we should not rejoice in the death of the Egyptians. How can that teaching be reconciled with the joy at the end of the Purim story? Well, there is doubt among commentators and historians that the actual story occurred as written; therefore, perhaps we can read it as the metaphorical overcoming of evil, rather than the mass devastation of a people.
But there are some real lessons in the story; one is that of prejudice and hate speech. Kirschenbaum points out that a central theme of Purim, “teaches a few lessons about response to hate speech. Haman pitches his genocide to the king, by stating that the Jews are dangerous because they are widely dispersed throughout the kingdom, and thus in some way threatening.”
Haman’s prejudice is evident. When Mordecai refuses to bow down before Haman, he is furious – but as the Book of Esther states, “… it was not enough for him to punish Mordecai alone, for having been told who Mordecai’s people were, Haman plotted to do away with all the Jews” (Esther 3:6). Because of his anger at one man, Haman sought to destroy all the Jews.
Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs reminds us that this is a textbook example of prejudice: “Feelings about or against an individual that grows into a generalized prejudice against as entire group. As Jews we are well aware of that kind of discrimination. The prejudice we see in the book of Esther,” adds Fuchs, “has confronted our people many times throughout history and continues to rear its head with frightful frequency.” We are not alone. It confronts many other groups as well. “Racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia are just some of the prejudices that plague our world today. The Purim story provides a vivid example of this phenomenon that we can profitably discuss with groups of all ages,” concludes Fuchs.
And of course, we cannot discuss the lessons of Purim without mentioning Hadassah who became Esther. Rabbi Elliot Tepperman points out that there is a reading of Purim that is critical of Esther precisely because she intermarries, hides her Jewish identity, and participates in a sordid beauty contest? The rabbis warned us against participating in all of these activities, but these were the exact actions that put her in the right place at the right time to save her people. Let us not forget that Esther didn’t have to do it. She could have refused to put herself in danger, and cast her lot with the entire Jewish people.
The decision of Queen Esther, a hidden Jew who reveals her true identity, manipulates events “to set the stage for a massive score-settling is the story we celebrate,” writes Fuchs. “This dramatic turn of events certainly helped endear the holiday to many generations of persecuted Diaspora Jews, and especially to those hidden Jews of Spain, for whom the Feast of Esther was among the most important vestiges of Jewish practice.” It is when Esther accepts her own reality that the positive outcome is possible.
Tepperman continues to say that “Esther teaches us that our power and privilege are meaningless protections if we do not use them to ensure the safety of our people and others in the world. She recognizes that as long the Jews are oppressed she too is in danger. And if she or Jews are oppressed – others may face the same danger.” Part of our challenge as Jews is to determine what it takes to protect people when they are in danger. “Esther’s example,” adds Tepperman, “also speaks to the importance of creating communities where all Jews feel welcome.”
So, this year, as we revel in the fun and games, music and hamantashen, let us remember some of the lessons of Purim. And as Fuchs suggests, modeling courage, recognizing prejudice, and combating it “make the Story of Esther one that can enrich our Jewish souls long after the celebration is over.”
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.