Purim and Jewish power

Queen Esther’s story is celebrated even in haredi quarters, and elicits nary a peep from the #MeToo movement.

A BRILLIANT future: Purim masks on sale at Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda marke (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A BRILLIANT future: Purim masks on sale at Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda marke
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Purim is indeed a strange and wondrous holiday, filled with myriad layers of meaning yet mystifyingly contradictory in nature. It portrays a frightening moment in our history – when a huge segment of our population faced utter devastation – yet we celebrate it with an unmatched revelry and abandon.
Its central character is a woman who is taken from her home and forced against her will to have relations with an aggressive, overbearing Gentile man, yet Queen Esther’s story is celebrated even in haredi quarters, and elicits nary a peep from the #MeToo movement.
Perhaps most perplexing of all is why the Book of Esther was included among the canonized works of Tanach. Not only because of the intrigue and the intermarriage it describes, but because it contradicts a basic Talmudic rule that once we entered the Land of Israel, only events that take place here in Israel are inscribed eternally in our literature. As moving or majestic as some stories from our vast wanderings in the Diaspora may be – indeed, there are dozens of stirring “Purim” tales recorded in various communities – none of them “make the cut” and qualify for inclusion in the 24 books of Bible.
Why is Purim so special?
Several weeks ago, an event took place that shook me and shocked me. On December 28, a man wielding a machete burst into a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York, attacking and wounding several people there. As others fled, one man confronted the attacker, pushing him away with a table. He then lured the attacker outside and documented the attacker’s license plate number and alerted police. He was hailed as a hero.
But here comes the shocker: Several weeks later, the local Jewish Federation and the Anti-Defamation League decided to award the courageous man with a $20,000 reward. But it was not to be; the man declined to accept the money, because, he said, it came “from Zionist sources.” In his words, “I was not willing to offer my soul for $20,000.” His rabbi further explained that he didn’t want “to encourage and promote the Zionist idea of Jewish self-defense, of fighting back, of fighting our enemies, which happens to be contrary to our tradition.”
During the 2,000 years of our wandering in the exile, we were at the mercy of our host countries. Some regimes were benevolent, to be sure, but many more treated us harshly, denied our basic human rights, taxed us into poverty, massacred us and brutally expelled us. Despite the fact that we generally enhanced these countries economically, socially and diplomatically, we were left powerless to determine our fate when the moment of decision came. We were subject to their mercy – or their malevolence.
But Purim is the exception to that rule. For the only time in our entire Diaspora experience, we were able to form an army of our own and defend ourselves against those who would destroy us. And despite our lack of combat training or military experience, we performed amazingly well. We vanquished our enemies – from Haman on down – and we saved our community from extinction.
It is that feature of the megillah, I suggest, that not only makes it unique, but allows it to be enshrined in the exclusive liturgy of our people. It portends a time when we would finally be in control of our own fortunes, a time when we would at last reconstitute a Jewish army that would defend our right to exist and deter any and all attempts to encroach upon our independence.
If God is proud of anything, it is our having raised generations of Jews here in Israel who bravely serve in the IDF, who not only guard our schools and yeshivot, our cities and our nation, but who send a clear message to the entire world: The Jewish people will never again be left defenseless in the face of oppression. The self-sacrifice exhibited by our soldiers each and every day is a kiddush Hashem par excellence that guarantees the Almighty’s blessing upon us – which is the real source of our strength.
When Haman’s plot to wipe out the Jews leaks out to the Persian Jewish community, the megillah records, “V’ha’ir Shushan navocha,” the city of Shushan was bewildered and pathetic. The word “navocha” connects to “nebuch.” We were helpless; a poor, pathetic nebuch. But when we rallied our troops and miraculously defeated our enemies, the megillah proclaims, “V’ha’ir Shushan tzahala v’sameha,” the city of Shushan rejoiced with great happiness, “tzahala” – as in Tzahal – the Israel Defense Forces. A nation with an army as superb as ours can truly rejoice.
We have, thank God, left behind those dark days when our hands were tied and our options severely limited, and have entered an age when we steer the ship and can finally chart our own course under our own power; the weakness we once felt has given way to wondrous achievements.
Purim represents our reversal of fortune, as we ascend from frailty to a brilliant future. And that is more than good reason to twirl our groggers and drink a “L’haim!”
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]