Thursday evening at sunset marks Shushan Purim, the holiday of Purim for walled cities like Shushan – and contemporary Jerusalem. And if you are lucky enough to be spending Purim in Jerusalem, and making your way to a celebration in the neighborhoods of Hebrew Union College, Mamilla, City Hall or Safra Square, may I recommend that you consider a quick stop on Koresh Street?
Why Koresh? Well, it’s a nicely-located road, joining Queen Shlomziyon and King Solomon Streets, graced with a few good cafes – but yeah, it’s mostly the name that makes Koresh an ideal spot to visit this Purim.
Purim, of course, celebrates the defeat of Haman and the deliverance of the Jews of Shushan – and Shushan was a capital city in ancient Persia. Now known as Iran, Persia has been home to the Jewish people for about three thousand years; it may seem hard to believe today, but Judaism is actually one of the oldest religions practiced in Iran! Not only the biblical Book of Esther but also the Books of Isaiah and Daniel contain early references to the Jews of Persia – and, millennia later, a source no less authoritative than Encyclopedia Britannica confirmed that Persian Jews were still maintaining a distinctive cultural and religious identity.
While the best-known king of Persia is probably King Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther, it would be hard to argue that he was anywhere close to the best king! No, that title belongs to another Persian king whose story is told in the Bible – specifically in the biblical Books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles. And that Persian king’s name is Koresh.
How great is Koresh? Well, great enough that he’s known in English as Cyrus the Great! And great enough that – according to the Bible – God refers to him as a messiah – as one divinely chosen to bring redemption to the Jews of his time.
Here’s what happened: In 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, razed her Holy Temple, and exiled her people. Psalm 137’s searing words – “By the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept, as we remembered Zion” – tragically and beautifully capture just how devastating this moment was to our ancestors, and how fervently they wished to return to their land and rebuild their city. But under the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and his descendants, that would never happen.
But King Cyrus happened instead. King Cyrus of Persia led a mighty army that vanquished the Babylonians, and that put generations of exiled Jews under his rule. And – incredibly – King Cyrus told those exiled Jews: You can go home.
The Second Book of Chronicles says it best: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the dominions of the earth…Whoever is among you of all His people, may the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up.’”
Not only were the Jews exiled by Babylonia permitted to return to Zion, they were charged by King Cyrus with building a Temple in Jerusalem – and not a temple dedicated to the gods of Persia, but a Temple dedicated to the God of Israel. The Book of Ezra recounts Cyrus’s decree:
“He has appointed me to build a temple for Him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.”
So that is how great Koresh is.
But there is one more facet to the greatness of Koresh, and another reason besides his Persian nationality, that I wish I could spend this Shushan Purim on Koresh Street:
When we think of the Jews and Persia, we think of Purim – of a power-mad vizier consumed with destroying us, of a ruler indifferent to our fate. And when we think of the Jews and Iran – modern-day Persia – we think of a power-mad ayatollah consumed with destroying us, of too many rulers indifferent to our fate.
But maybe this Purim we can also think of Koresh. Maybe we can also think of a time when the Jews of Persia lived free of fear and dread, when they lived honored and safe. Maybe we can recite the words of Esther chapter 8 – “For the Jews it was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honor” – and know that they have come true, again and again. And that they will come to pass once more.
Chag Purim Sameach!