A Zionist Purim

The ultimate message of the holiday is a very Zionist one: Don’t depend on anyone else. And do not depend on chance.

Purim costumes 521 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Purim costumes 521
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Now that we are in Adar II, Purim is almost upon us. Soon the streets will be filled with costumed children and the stores with all the possible varieties of hamantashen. Purim is certainly one of the most popular holidays in Israel, which is strange in itself since it is the quintessential Diaspora holiday. It took place in Persia, the Megila was composed there and its only connection with the Land of Israel is the throwaway line that Mordecai was the descendant of Kish who “had been exiled from Jerusalem... by King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon” (Esther 2:6).
What the book doesn’t say is that the story takes place in the period of Xerxes (485-465 BCE) more than 50 years after Jews had been permitted to return to Jerusalem by Cyrus the Persian. Mordecai and the other Jews threatened by Haman had evidently not taken advantage of that possibility. What they really needed was a good shaliah from the Jewish Agency.
It is a strange story in any case, one which most modern biblical scholars consider to be a satirical comedy written for use on a carnival-like holiday. On the one hand, it tells a typical tale of the fate of Diaspora Jews who are considered to be outsiders. Haman informs the king that these Jews belong to a “certain people... whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws” (Esther 3:8). Since they are different, they should not be tolerated, and thus the wheels are set in motion for their destruction. Haman proposes a solution to the Jewish question – “to destroy, massacre and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women” (Esther 3:13). It is the same solution proposed by a latter-day Haman whose name also began with the letter H and who was all too successful in carrying it out.
On the other hand, if the Jews stood out as different, the heroine of the story is the perfect symbol of assimilation. She was born with a perfectly good Hebrew name, Hadassah, but went by a Persian name, Esther – a version of Ishtar. Although under the tutelage of Mordecai, who was identified always as a Jew, she successfully masqueraded as a full-blooded Persian, not revealing her people or her kindred (Esther 2:10), and entering into an intermarriage with the Persian king. Various rabbinic interpretations are embarrassed enough about that to offer explanations about how she managed to observe kashrut etc. in the Persian court.
Of course, it is specifically because she was so successful in hiding her Jewishness that she was in a position to play a pivotal role in thwarting Haman’s plot. That is what Mordecai says to her when persuading her to risk her life by confronting the king, “And who knows, perhaps you have attained royal position for just such a crisis” (Esther 4:14).
It is one of the anomalies of the book that it does not say that God has placed her there for that purpose, although that seems to be the implication.
Indeed God is nowhere mentioned in the biblical book. But perhaps the very message of the book is that these Jews were dependent upon good fortune, luck, for their very salvation, and therefore the unspoken question is whether or not Diaspora living is really sustainable when it has to depend on chance.
For Persian Jewry it worked, so says the story. For European Jewry it failed.
Chance indeed is a featured player in the Megila. The very name of the holiday, Purim, comes from the fact that Haman “had plotted to destroy the Jews, and had cast pur – that is, the lot – with the intent to crush and exterminate them” (Esther 9:24), but the plot backfired and he himself was exterminated.
It was also chance that Vashti was banished so Esther could become queen, and that Mordecai learned of the plot against the king and so the king was in his debt (Esther 2:21-23). Can a community really depend on chance for its salvation? Will there always be an Esther to save them? Mordecai seems convinced that even without her, the Jews would be saved.
He tells her, “If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter” (Esther 4:14). Here too one would have expected him to say, “God will provide relief and deliverance,” but he does not. Unfortunately, while it is true that the Jewish people as a people has always been saved – as we say on Pessah – but that has not prevented the slaughter of individual Jews, millions of them, and the extermination of hundreds of Jewish communities.
Perhaps, then, the ultimate message of the holiday is a very Zionist one: Don’t depend on anyone else. And do not depend on chance. Be ready to defend yourselves. That is one reason for the existence of a Jewish state. So perhaps Purim does belong here after all.

The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and current member of its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, was the founding director of the Schechter Rabbinical School. A two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award, his latest book is Entering Torah.