On the surface, Purim is the feel-good capital of the Jewish holidays, what with
the wild revelry of the masquerade parties, the drinktill- you-drop feasting,
and the over-thetop parades that raucously fill Israel’s streets. Why, it’s even
the one time when kids and adults are actually encouraged to make noise in the
And the story-line of Purim? It’s straight out of a Disney movie:
Idyllic Jewish community enjoys a cushy Diaspora life until evil villain appears
on the scene, determined to kill them all. From nowhere comes a beautiful young
girl, her real identity masked – just like any good super-hero – who
miraculously becomes the princess. At just the right moment, she unmasks,
convinces the king to undo the nefarious plot and execute the plotters, and
saves her people.
And they all live happily ever after.
But a lot
more is going on here than meets the eye. A deeper look at Purim – stop here if
you hate reading the fine print – reveals a plethora of intriguing, even
embarrassing, questions. We can start with Esther, the maiden who would be
queen. At the very least, she is forced against her will into the harem of
Ahasuerus, a voracious womanizer with no great love of the Jews. (The
Talmud records that Ahasuerus enthusiastically went along with Haman’s planned
genocide, even refusing to take the generous bribe offered him by Haman in order
to secure royal approval for the plan.)
But Esther’s plight is even more tragic
if we accept the rabbis’ opinion that Esther was married to Mordecai. Now, she
is guilty of adultery – a cardinal sin which, by Jewish law, carries the death
sentence – when she voluntarily goes to meet the king, whose tête-à-têtes are
notoriously of a sexual nature. Esther understands the impossibility of her
situation, expressed in her poignant cry to Mordecai, “I shall surely be lost
I often ask myself how would this whole splendid scenario would play
in Mea She’arim or Bnei Brak? Jewish girl is taken by non-Jewish ruler, lives
with him and has a child by him. Would that union be celebrated? Does the end
justify the means?
The Jews, for their part, don’t come off too well, either.
They are tossed about throughout the story, like powerless pawns, by Haman and
Ahasuerus, forced to submit to the menace of one while begging for the mercy of
the other. Indeed, one of the reasons why we omit the saying of the
Hallel prayers of praise on Purim – customarily recited on every Jewish holiday
– is that we remained, even at story’s end, under the subjugation of the Persian
Yet the rabbis, after long debate, finally decided to canonize
the story of Esther and add it to our national calendar for posterity. I suggest
they reached that decision for two crucial reasons.
radical and revolutionary occurs near the end of the Megila. Perhaps for the
first time in the life of the Jews in the Diaspora, we are given the right to
form our own army and defend ourselves. Ahasuerus does not deign to dispose of
the murderers bent on our destruction, claiming that an official edict, once
sealed, can never be rescinded. But he does grant our petition to be allowed to
take up arms and fight our own battle, and this we do with IDF-like courage and
conviction, killing 75,500 of our enemies and erasing the existential threat
against our lives.
This flash of independence is a beacon for our future,
when we would have the means and the moxie to lay low any and all who would
endanger our survival. Indeed, the Megila winks at the time to come; when
the Jews of Persia first learn of Haman’s plot, they are in a state of deep
despair and anxiety: “And the city of Shushan was navocha [bewildered],” or
simply put, a nebuch.
But later, when we fought back and wiped out our
foes, the opposite sentiment prevails: “And the city of Shushan tzahala
v’samecha, rejoiced and celebrated.” “Tzahala” – from the word tzahal –
an army of our own.
And then the final, hidden chapter of the Megila
gives it its true and lasting significance. Esther and Ahasuerus have a child,
Darius, and he rises to the throne upon Ahasuerus’s death. Darius decrees that
the building of the second Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed 70 years ago, may now
begin. He thus reaffirms the order originally given by Cyrus 18 years previously
and suspended by Ahasuerus’s first wife, Vashti. The center of Jewish life, soon
enough, will return to our eternal capital. It is in this merit that the story
of Purim achieves permanent value, and why it is the only event that occurs in
Diaspora Jewish history, from the Exodus to the present, which is commemorated
annually by the Jews of every community.
THE UNDERLYING theme of the
Purim story is hiddenness. The holiday’s proof text is named after Esther – we
could have called it Megilat Mordecai or Igeret Hapurim, the Purim letter –
because the very name “Esther” connotes that which is un-revealed, that which
lies beneath the surface. For while the narrative of the story seems to unfold
in a rational – albeit captivating – manner, the preponderance of seemingly
“random” events tells us that this spectacular saga is anything but haphazard.
It “just happens” that Queen Vashti develops a mysterious disease that
prevents her from appearing before the king, resulting in her dismissal and
beheading; it “just happens” that Esther – described by the Sages as less than
beautiful, with a greenish complexion – is chosen as the new queen; it “just
happens” that Mordecai overhears the plot to assassinate the king, and saves the
monarch’s life; it “just happens” that the king cannot sleep on the very night
that Haman enters his courtyard, leading to the reward of Mordecai at Haman’s
expense. And on and on.
Not for nothing does the Talmud say, in
response to the question, “Where can Esther be found within the Torah?” that the
identifying verse is, “On that day I shall surely conceal – Hester Astir – my
The true messages of Purim, like golden nuggets, are to be
discovered only upon digging deep beneath the text. And what was true then is no
less true now. When things happen seemingly without rhyme or reason – the
intra-Arab fighting taking place all around is a perfect example – the wise
person will look beyond the superficial to connect the dots and perceive a
masterful Divine plan at work. Indeed, the glaring absence of God’s name within
the Megila is seen by the rabbis as an indication that God is everywhere in this
story, and so mentioning His name only at various junctures would be completely
As with all of our heroes and holidays, Purim is a complex
combination of grief and glory, tragedy and triumph. But in the end, the
overriding ideas of Jewish independence, and the expression of the Jewish
national destiny in Israel, serve to justify the Sages’ decision to uphold Purim
as a national day of celebration.
Particularly in our own day, when we
are privileged to witness the pride of a magnificent Israeli army and a
largelyrebuilt Jerusalem of Gold, each of us has “lots” to celebrate!
writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of