kids 88 purim.
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'What's in a name?" asked Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, "that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."
Well, old Will may not have put much stock in names, but Jewish tradition certainly does. We care mightily about what we call things, for the name of something reflects its essence. And so we ought to wonder, what kind of a name is Purim?
Literally, the word means "lots" and refers to Haman's choosing - by raffle - the date of 14 Adar as the best time to exterminate the Jews of Persia. Okay, that's a part of the story, no doubt, but a minor part at best. If you or I were naming this saga, I'm sure we'd find a better moniker, one that encompasses the whole dramatic sequence. How about, "The Unmasking of Esther"? Or perhaps "The Undoing of Horrible Haman"? Though brevity is a blessing, Purim just doesn't seem to capture the romance of it all.
Or does it?
Let's try to answer this question - in classic Jewish style - by asking another, even more probing question: Why is the story of Purim even included in our litany of holidays? What is it about Purim that compelled the rabbis to "canonize" this drama, requiring every Jewish community to read the Megila twice each year - accompanied by rituals such as mishloach manot, gifts to the poor, and an elaborate banquet? Surely there must have been thousands of incidents in Jewish history in which whole communities were miraculously saved, and yet none of them merited national holidays. Why does Purim alone make the grade?
I SUGGEST that Purim is the quintessential morality play regarding the Jewish condition in the Diaspora. The Jews of Persia achieved phenomenal success in their adopted land, as witnessed by their being invited, en masse, to the royal banquet in the Megila's opening chapter. Clearly, they had "made it." And so had Mordechai and Esther, who enjoyed an even more exalted status. They lived not in Shushan proper, but in Shushan Habira, the inner city, where only the most privileged could reside.
As part of the king's inner circle, Mordechai and Esther had the king's ear, but are not too quick to speak into it regarding their coreligionists' plight. Mordechai is a national hero, having saved Ahashuerus's life, yet he never directly confronts the king over Haman's nefarious plot.
Esther, for her part, keeps her lineage well hidden (how many Diaspora Jews have downplayed or disguised their pedigree?).
Even when Mordechai finally insists that she plead with Ahasuerus to nullify the evil decree, Esther looks for excuses not to "rock the ship" of state (shades of Jewish reluctance to confront FDR over the genocide of European Jewry). The pivotal moment in the Megila comes when Mordechai takes Esther aside and paints her a vivid historical picture: "Relief and rescue will invariably save the Jewish nation," he tells her, "but if you bow out and remain silent, your place in history will be lost!"
In an agonizing decision, Esther finally relents, and Haman's plot is soon undone.
The Jews of the Diaspora have generally excelled in the countries of our sojourn, reaching dizzying heights in the corridors of wealth, education, medicine, science and political clout. For long periods of time, we manage to live the ultimate double life; we are loyal, even model citizens, as well as faithful Jews. But at some point, we are invariably forced to choose between these two identities. Sometimes, the choice is forced upon us, as happened in Spain or Germany, and sometimes it is a moral choice we must take upon ourselves.
The Megila - and life itself - are all about making choices, for the consequences will affect not only us personally, but the nation of Israel as a whole.
SHORTLY AFTER our son Ari, a staff-sergeant in the IDF, fell in battle against terrorists in Nablus, my wife and I were visited by a woman whom we had never met. For several minutes, she was crying so hysterically that she could not speak. At first, we thought she had heard about Ari and had come to pay her condolences - as did many strangers - and was simply overcome by emotion. But we were wrong; her tears were about more than just Ari.
When she finally composed herself, she told us the following story: "My husband and I were both born in Israel," she said, "and we were blessed with two children, a boy and a girl. When our son reached the age of 16, we decided that we could not face the prospect of him being drafted into the army, and risk being injured - or worse. And so, after much soul-searching - and against my son's own wishes - we decided to move to California.
"On our son's 18th birthday - when he would have been inducted into the IDF - we bought him a car. Just a few days after his 19th birthday, he was killed in a car crash. I came here to tell you what a horrible choice I made. If it was indeed my son's destiny to die young, how much better it would have been for him to fall in defense of Israel and the people of Israel, rather than as just another traffic statistic."
Purim endures - some say it will continue even after all the other Jewish holidays have been cancelled by the final Redemption - because it forces us to think about where we cast our lot in life.
Choose wisely, for you don't always get a second chance.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana. firstname.lastname@example.org