6 Themes of Purim
Purim is a holiday that comes to us in the peculiar book of Esther, a historical novella found in the Hebrew Bible. This story comes to us from the a post-prophetic period, when the voices of the prophets are silent, and the Israelites are scattered in the diaspora. It’s a story that never once mentions God’s name, one where we never see any direct interaction between God and humans. Perhaps it’s because he is there in the background, as the Narrator of the whole story (and every story)? Maybe as a quiet supporting character? Or maybe as a distant and apathetic spectator? Life goes on, people have choices, and individuals have the opportunity to effect change.
Here are a few thoughts running through my mind as I prepare to celebrate this holiday.
To me, the forgotten hero of the story is not Esther who passively submitted to her circumstances for much of the story, but instead Vashti, the brave and self-respecting queen who would not allow herself to be humiliated. She refused to engage in demeaning games, to be the centerpiece of a gluttonous feast, to ‘display her beauty’ before the drunken crowd. She respected her body; she respected herself. And she was set aside, as the king’s guests feared Vashti’s refusal to comply with a drunken whim would set a precedent for other women in the kingdom. The text’s disapproval of Vashti, and willingness to set her aside so easily, is one of many reasons this story was certainly written by a man.
On the other hand, Esther is one of the few books in the Bible with a female protagonist. Esther rose to the challenge placed in front of her, not only in making the best of her situation, but through attempting to change the destructive plans Haman set in motion. She showed great courage and strength, risking her comfort and even her life for the sake of her people. With humility she grows into a character of great courage and strength, becoming known for more than just her beauty, but for her cleverness and her service.
The threat of violence is very real to many of us. It’s ever-present in media that wears blood-tinted glasses, over-emphasizing the prevalence of threats, minimizing or ignoring stories of successful nonviolence. And violence is there...destroying goodness, separating families, ending lives. The first way we should focus on violence is through choosing not to be complicit in it. Esther chose to counteract the plan set by Haman, using the resources at her disposal to convince the king to support an endeavor he may have initially resisted. Our small choices can have a ripple effect. We can rarely undo what’s been done, and we can’t always change plans that have been set in motion; we can meet them with strength of soul, resist the evil, and seek to overcome it.
3. Social Justice
During Purim, we are told to eat, drink and engage in merriment in remembrance of our national deliverance in ancient Persia. At the same time, we are told to give gifts to the poor (Esther 9:22) and to engage in justice (understood as charity). In our giving to the poor, we have the opportunity to address the social and structural inequalities around us. While celebrating, we have the opportunity to give to others, to bring them some relief or happiness, and welcome them to share in our joy.
Many times we feel bad about injustice in our society, and it’s easy to sit back and do nothing. Purim is a reminder that our good intentions should accompany action. In the words of Chasidic Rebbe Yehudi HaKadosh, ‘Good intentions alone not accompanied by action are without value. The main thing is the action, as this is what makes the intention so profound.’ This holiday is a wonderful opportunity to combine our intent with action, to find an area where we can volunteer our time, or a to select a charity to which we can donate.
For much of the story, Esther hides her Jewish identity. As a member of a small and disliked minority, she was uncomfortable revealing this aspect of herself. Part of the holiday includes masking ourselves, dressing up like someone or something else, engaging in a measure of deception. Yet the story shows us that our attempts to hide our identities are futile. While such a decision may be wise for a period of time, being honest with ourselves and others is also important. As Mordechai told Esther, ‘Who knows whether you didn’t come into your royal position precisely for such a time as this’ (Esther 4:14). In our celebration we may alter our appearance, but we cannot change who we are just to satisfy the desire of the majority. From our minority position we have a unique voice, one that is valuable, one that is necessary.
Unfortunately this is still a huge problem in many places in the world, and like other forms of xenophobia and minority hatred, it will likely be with us for a long time. Anti-semitism is not a hard and fast rule of life, where ‘they’ will always hate us, or that ‘they’ have always hated us. People are not static, although we can be resistant to change. But change, adjust, adapt and learn we do. In Esther, Haman hates the Jewish nation because Mordechai would not bow down before him, and the story teaches us that the proper response is clever resistance rather than submission to the Powers-that-Be.
Purim, like life, is a big mix of contradictions, and in many ways, it is what we make of it. We can choose to see the monsters lurking around us, casting shadows far bigger than they truly are. We can choose to focus on the anti-feminist message in the story. Or instead, we can find the message that speaks hope, the message that speaks life to our people, and encourages us to become bringers of life and hope in our context.
This Purim, when we laugh at the costumes, shake our noise-makers at the sound of Haman’s name, and engage in merriment, let’s also remember the parts of the story that call us to be vigilant against evil and attentive to those in need. Then, let’s celebrate our successes along the way.