What’s so special about Purim?

A deeper look at this holiday reveals a whole lot of intriguing, even embarrassing, questions.

Scary purim costume 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Scary purim costume 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On the surface, Purim is the feel-good capital of the holidays, what with the wild revelry of the masquerade parties, the drink-till-you-drop feasting, the over-the-top parades that raucously fill the country’s streets. Why, it’s even the one time when kids and adults are actually encouraged to make noise in the synagogue! 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, determined to kill them all.
From nowhere comes a beautiful young girl – her real identity masked, just like any good superhero – who miraculously becomes the queen. 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 it ain’t necessarily so. A deeper look at Purim – stop here if you hate reading the fine print – reveals a whole lot of intriguing, even embarrassing, questions. We can start with Esther, the maidel 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 gleefully went along with Haman’s planned genocide, even refusing to take the generous bribe which Haman offered him to secure royal approval for the plan.
But Esther’s plight is even more tragic if we accept the rabbis’ opinion that she was married to Mordecai. Now, she is guilty of adultery – a cardinal sin by Jewish law, requiring martyrdom – 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 forever!” I often ask myself, “How would this whole splendid scenario play in Mea She’arim or Bnei Brak?” Jewish girl is taken by a 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, also don’t come off too well.
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 holiday – is that we remained, even at story’s end, under the subjugation of the Persian Empire.
Yet the rabbis, after long debate, finally decided to canonize the story of Esther and add it to our national calendar. I suggest they reached that decision for two crucial reasons.
First, something 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.
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 nabocha,” bewildered, 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 rebuilding of the 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 by the Jews of every community.
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 twin pillars of Jewish independence and the expression of the Jewish national destiny in Israel firmly support the sages’ decision to uphold Purim as a national day of celebration.
Particularly in our day, when we can witness the pride of a magnificent Israeli army and a rebuilt Jerusalem of Gold, each of us has “lots” (Purim) to celebrate.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]