Around the world, we Jews soon will be throwing ourselves into our celebration of Purim. We will be voraciously eating hamantaschen (Purim cakes), dressing up in all manner of costumes, reading the Megillah (the Book of Esther) while grinding our groggers (noisemakers) as loud as we can whenever the name of Haman is mentioned, having fun playing games and winning prizes; all of this being wrapped up inside a carnival – or dare I say a Mardi Gras – atmosphere.
Purim is a holiday of total abandonment to joy. It is a mitzvah! We are commanded by Jewish law to enjoy ourselves on Purim. And such abandonment was never intended to be limited to just children. Adults, too, are supposed to surrender to it. I know that there are times when we adults can become too self-conscious or just too darn stuffy to let ourselves get into the spirit of Purim, but that is our shortcoming and not the shortcoming of the holiday.
Last year, at our Purim service in Davenport, Iowa, we had a family of adults who attended, all in costume, and it was obvious from their behaviors that before coming to Temple, they had liberally partaken of the fruit of the vine, or perhaps liquids somewhat stronger. They had a great time! After the service, there were those who commented about how inappropriate was their behavior. However, those who made such remarks to me were surprised, and perhaps disturbed, by the response they received. For rather than affirming their outrage, I told them, “No. Not at all! For these were the adults who, more than any others, had truly captured the spirit of the holiday.” What? Drunkenness in the sanctuary is appropriate behavior? Not on Yom Kippur, and not even on Shabbat. But on Purim – you betcha! In fact, there is an entire tractate of the Talmud, Tractate Megillah, which is dedicated to instructing us on how to observe this holiday properly. And in that tractate it says, believe it or not, “On Purim it is a man’s duty to inebriate himself to the point that he is unable to distinguish between the phrases, ‘ Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai.’” In fact, there is a Purim tradition for adults – not for children but for adults – which is derived from that mitzvah, the very name of which comes from that Talmudic text. It is called a Adloyadah and it is an adult drinking party. The name Adloyadah literally means “until you are unable to distinguish.” Purim is indeed our party holiday!
But why all the extreme celebration? After all, while the story of Mordecai and Esther, Haman and Ahashuerus is an interesting one, it would not appear to be that significant. Let’s face it! It’s not Passover, with the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea, and the liberation of our people from Egyptian slavery. So what is this excessive joy all about?
You see, while the celebration of Purim centers upon merriment, the reason for the celebration of Purim actually centers upon the most painful and tragic challenge which has confronted our people, not just at the time and in the setting of the Purim story, but in practically every time and every setting throughout the history of our people. I am talking about antisemitism; that seemingly eternal hatred of Jews merely because we are Jews, coupled with the desire to do away with, if not all of us, as many of us as possible. Haman, the villain of the Purim story was a consummate antisemite. His plan for the Jews of Persia was nothing short of genocide. Indeed, this might have been the first attempted genocide in human history. It is to this point that Rabbi Irving Greenberg, in his book THE JEWISH WAY: LIVING THE HOLIDAYS, says “Appearances can be deceptive. Purim, which supports enormous theological freight, may well be the darkest, most depressing holiday of the Jewish calendar. Its laughter is Pagliacci’s – a hair’s breadth away from despair.”
Unfortunately, in our own day and age, history has impelled us to memorialize another attempted genocide; the Holocaust. Yet our Holocaust remembrance is most certainly a somber affair. We recall both atrocities and instances of heroism. We weep in our hearts, if not actually with our eyes, for all its victims so brutally slain. We are nonplused by the evil of the evil doers and we, with grim resolve, vow “Never again!” There is no merriment attached to Yom HaShoah; no noisemakers drowning out the name of Hitler whenever it is mentioned. There is nothing lighthearted about it. Yet the bonds which bind Purim to the Holocaust are incontrovertible and unbreakable. Probably the most compelling statement of this connection came out of the mouth of none other than Julius Streicher, the publisher of the virulently antisemitic Nazi newspaper, “Der Sturmer.” Having been sentenced to death by hanging at the Nuremberg trials, his last words were “Purimfest, 1946!”
So if Purim is all about antisemitism and attempted genocide, why is it so merry whereas Yom HaShoah is so somber? The merriment of Purim is based, not so much upon the attempted genocide itself, but rather upon the defeat of the genocidal plan; the victory of the Jewish people over antisemitism. For while Haman plotted our destruction, unlike Hitler, Haman never succeeded in killing one single Jew. Gratefully, when it comes to Purim, we have no Jews for whom to mourn. Thanks to Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai – true Jewish heroes – the implications of Haman’s hatred were not underestimated, but were effectively confronted before any harm could be done. And that is a true cause for celebration. The confronting of antisemitism – the confronting of hatred and bigotry – and stopping it in its tracks before it can take root – before it can draw blood – is a true cause for celebration.
There is much which the Purim story can teach us for our own day and age about both the nature of antisemitism and how to respond to it. We make a serious mistake if we choose to believe that this story is just about the past. It is about the present as well. So what can we learn from it?
First of all, we should learn that while a certain amount of assimilation into the general society may serve us well, we are foolish to believe that assimilation in and of itself is the answer to antisemitism.
The Jews had a good life in Persia. By most of their neighbors, they seem to have been completely accepted. One of the ways that we can tell that the Jews were highly assimilated is by looking at the names of the characters. Neither Esther nor Mordecai are Jewish names. Greenberg believes that these names are based upon the names of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar and the Babylonian god Marduk. It is not uncommon for Jews, when they feel welcomed by their non-Jewish neighbors, or they wish to make themselves more welcomed by those neighbors, that they put aside their Jewish names in favor of more socially acceptable ones. One only need consider the names of most American Jews today to see this at work. My name, “Henry,” is not a traditional Jewish name, and neither is my wife’s name, “Gail.” Even most of those who have traditional Jewish names don’t pronounce them in their Hebrew fashion. My son, for example, is named “Joshua,” not “Yehoshua.”
Nor is the assimilation of the Persian Jews at the time of the Purim story witnessed just in their names. How much more assimilated can a Jew become than Esther? Here is a Jewish woman who becomes queen of the land. But she does not become queen like Joe Lieberman when he was running for president. She does not wear her Judaism on her sleeve. Quite the contrary. For her, Jewish identity is a very personal and private matter. If no one mentions it to her, she doesn’t mention it to them. As far as she is concerned, what the non-Jews around her, including her own husband, don’t know won’t hurt her. She doesn’t look Jewish. She doesn’t act Jewish. She doesn’t talk Jewish. And at least as long as people don’t ask her, there is no assumption that she is Jewish. Sound familiar? It should. So, you see, the Persian Jewish community at that time was not that different than ours today.
Yet even in a society where most people, including the king, seemed to be comfortable with living side by side with Jews, still there were those who were fueled by their hatred of us; who, those who, like Haman, saw us as a community apart from society; an alien presence; a threat requiring elimination, indeed extermination. These are Haman’s words to Ahashuerus, “There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among all 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. If it please your Majesty, let an edict be drawn up for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the stewards for deposit in the royal treasury.” Indeed, such people seem to hate us all the more for our trying to “fit in.” Even though today these haters of Jews may be on the fringe of society, they still pose a real danger. They pose a real danger because they always have the potential of locking on to an issue which gains them an audience of otherwise tolerant people.
Did we ourselves not experience this for several years, with a personality no less than Bill O’Reilly, on the Fox network, ranting and railing about the so-called “War on Christmas”? Suddenly, he had a surprising number of our fellow Americans believing that Jews, and other religious minorities, but especially we Jews, were dead set on denying our Christian neighbors their sacred holiday. Why? Simply because we preferred such inclusive December salutations as “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” over the Christian-only sentiment of “Merry Christmas.”
While being at one with the general society can never be the complete answer to antisemitism, it most certainly can be part of the solution. We must remember that Mordecai was not just a good Jew. He also was a good Persian. Remember that it was Mordecai who uncovered the plot to assassinate King Ahashuerus. He literally saved the king’s life, and for that he was rewarded, much to Haman’s chagrin. But more than the reward he received at the time, it was his actions and his proven loyalty, as well as the love and loyalty of Queen Esther, which sowed the seeds for Haman’s undoing. If Jews are to have any hope of safety in a society, then they must prove themselves, time and again, to be good citizens who contribute to well being of all.
Purim also teaches us that we must take the threats of antisemites seriously. When Mordecai reported to Queen Esther Haman’s dark plot against our people, it would have been easy for her, in the safety of the royal palace, to tell him that he was blowing the situation way out of proportion; that it was inconceivable that Haman could ever achieve his goal. There are still plenty of Jews today who would respond that way. “I don’t want to rock the boat. I don’t want to put myself at risk, simply because I am Jewish.” Sad to say, this was the response of too many American Jews to the Holocaust, while it was happening. Their fears for their own security kept them from protesting and from demanding that the United States open its doors to Jewish refugees; to demanding that the Allies bomb the extermination facilities. If they had done so, God knows how many of our Europeans brothers and sisters would have been saved. But they failed, and we know the results of their failure.
Esther, rather than hiding in the safety and security of the royal palace, chose to take Haman’s threat seriously; so much so that she took great personal risk in confronting and subduing it. As a result, our people were saved.
Like Esther and Mordecai, the rabbis of the Talmud understood: “Kawl Yisraeil aravim zeh ba-zeh” – “All Jews are responsible for each other.” First and foremost, we are Jews, and as such, we need to take care of each other. It is foolishness for we Jews to think that we can dissociate ourselves from our fellow Jews and from the challenges they face. For in the end, those challenges will engulf us all, even if we try to hide from them in the deepest, darkest places, or for that matter, in the palace of the king.
Today, in Iran, there is yet another Haman, making similar threats – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has been seriously pursuing the production of nuclear weapons, coupled with unabashedly announcing his goal of using those weapons for the total elimination of the State of Israel. He has proudly proclaims that “Israel must be wiped off the map!” If we have learned anything from the Purim story – from the actions and the courage of Mordecai and Esther – then it is that it is imperative to take seriously those who make such threats, and to act according so as to insure that such plots never come to fruition.
Mordecai and Esther took Haman’s threats seriously, and they nipped his genocidal plan in the bud, and therefore we celebrate at Purim. On the other hand, far too many refused to take Hitler’s threats seriously until it was too late, and therefore we mourn on Yom HaShoah. Today, there are those, like Ahmadinejad, and Hamas, and Hezbollah, and a frightening number of Neo-Nazi hate groups, who continue in the tradition of Haman, threatening to extinguish the existence of the Jewish people. The sad and hard truth is that once antisemitism is unleashed in a society, we Jews have little choice. We have to be willing to fight long and hard to eradicate it. And that job is not just the job of any one Jew or any one group of Jews. It is the job of all Jews. It is our job. We have to do it. We cannot stand by silently, waiting for the threatened danger to disappear like a cloud of smoke. For it is not a cloud of smoke. It is tangible. It is lethal. And it will remain so unless we act to dismantle it. To such threats, Purim challenges us to respond in the manner of Mordecai and Esther, for the future of our people is in our hands. In the years to come, will the nature of our response to such antisemitism give rise to another Purim celebration or another Yom HaShoah memorial?
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillot 7b.
 Greenberg, Rabbi Irving, THE JEWISH WAY: LIVING WITH THE HOLIDAYS, p. 224.
 Conot, Robert E., JUSTICE AT NUREMBERG, p. 506.
 Greenberg, 227.
 ESTHER 3:8-9.
 Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shevuot 39a.