The story of Purim is a tale of intrigue. It is also a singular story that can lead us in two rather different directions.
The Story of Purim, Direction A:
While historians are skeptical as to whether or not the events related by Megillah Esther—the Scroll of Esther—actually occurred, the story of Purim is very much the story of the Jewish people.
As the story tells us, the Jews of Shushan believed they had not only found safety and security, but also had been accepted as part of the social fabric in Shushan. Their sense of rootedness was thrown into chaos when hatred reared its head in the form of Haman. Haman, for his part, had been offended and humiliated when the king chose to honor Mordechai instead of him, but in keeping with one of the core elements of antisemitism, turned his singular anger at Mordechai on the entirety of the Jewish people and swore to destroy us all. Rather than merely plot against our community, however, Haman used the legal system in Shushan to ensure that his plan to wipe out the Jews of Shushan was “legal.” At the last minute, Esther heeded Mordechai’s call to action and addressed the king, and our community survived.
This is the story of Jewish tenacity and survival.
Egypt. The Babylonians. Antiochus. The Crusades. Nazi Germany.
The names, dates and locations may change but this story has repeated itself time and time again.
It reminds us that, throughout our history, we have encountered numerous individuals and groups who sought to oppress us. But rather than leave us paralyzed by that realization, it challenges us to celebrate the fact that each time we have been oppressed, we found a way to not only survive, but also to rebuild our community and thrive once again.
This is the Purim story we tell. It is celebrated through funny retellings of the story that may help ease any lingering anxiety, with carnivals that give the next generation the opportunity to celebrate our survival with joy, and by sending gifts—mishloach manot— to friends and neighbors. It reminds us that it is a privilege to be Jewish and that, rather than hardening our hearts in response to those who have sought to destroy us, we choose to open our arms and hearts to those in need so we can lift them up as we have, on too many occasions, needed to be lifted as well.
Purim Story, Direction B:
This is the story of pent-up anger and frustration, and the violence that can be unleashed when anger and power meet.
Like most of the hate-filled people who have sought our destruction, Haman was cunning. He understood that, according to the legal system at the time, once the King had given him permission to murder the Jews of Shushan that decree could not be revoked. That was why, once Esther told the king what had transpired, he was able to take direct action against Haman (“Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and Mordechai the Jew, ‘I have given Haman’s property to Esther, and he has been impaled on the stake for scheming against the Jews.’” Esther 8:7), but was unable to stop Haman’s plan to destroy our people. (“…for an edict that has been written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet may not be revoked.” Esther 8:8)
Instead, the king issued a decree allowing the Jews to preemptively strike those who sought to harm them. And they did just that. In the final chapter of Megillah Esther we find the following verses:
“So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies. “
“In the fortress Shushan the Jews killed a total of five hundred men. They also killed…the ten sons of Haman son of Hammedatha.”
“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…”
The plot had been exposed. The king had put Haman and his sons to death. The newly emboldened Jews had killed five hundred of Haman’s followers. But while the external threat may have been neutralized, the anger and desire for revenge had not diminished. And at Esther’s request the king sat back, and a day later seventy-five thousand residents of Shushan lay dead.
At a time when our ancestors had neither political nor physical power I can imagine the fantasy of exacting revenge from those who seek to do us harm. But when the mindset of “Direction B” meets physical or political power the results can be devastating.
That was what we saw on display when Israeli settlers attacked the Palestinian village of Huwara the other night. The anger and outrage of the settlers was understandable in the shadow of the multiple terrorist attacks that had left two sets of brothers dead in as many days, but rather than allow the authorities to find and punish the culprits, the settlers attacked men, women and children in the village, destroying property and leaving many injured or dead. As if that was not enough, Zvika Fogel, a member of parliament from the radical Jewish Power party, stated, “A terrorist came out of Huwara – and Huwara was closed and burned. This is what I want to see.” Finance Minister Bezalel Smotritch then doubled down and stated that the village should be “wiped out.” (The village in question is home to 7,000 people!)
I have little doubt that Fogel, Smotritch and the extremists who attacked Huwara will read Megilat Esther this Purim. Sadly, they have ignored—and likely will continue to do so—the lessons of Purim that celebrate Jewish reliance and joy, and they will continue to revel in violence and bloodshed. Even more sadly, it is unlikely they will ever recognize that their actions are Chillul Hashem—a desecration of the name of the very God they claim to serve.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen