Purim feels more relevant this year amid crisis in Ukraine - opinion

The Russian-Ukrainian war reminds us of Purim's message to fight tyrants.

 A MAN holds an effigy of Vladimir Putin during a protest in Washington earlier this week against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  (photo credit: SARAH SILBIGER/REUTERS)
A MAN holds an effigy of Vladimir Putin during a protest in Washington earlier this week against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Celebrating Purim this month, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a global spike in anti-Zionism and antisemitism, resonates particularly nicely; it’s like making the regularly scheduled prayer for rain during a drought. People might normally scoff at the silly masquerades, the highly caloric three-corner-hat-shaped cookies, and the too-familiar retelling of the megillah’s 2,500-year-old story. But Purim’s call to fight tyrants suddenly feels very relevant.

Purim recounts how Haman convinced the drunken king Ahasuerus to kill the Jews in the Persian kingdom, in the fifth century BCE. Mordecai, whose refusal to bow down to any human enraged Haman, encourages his niece Queen Esther to come out as a Jew and foil the plot. The resulting celebrations reaffirm that good eventually triumphs.

But Purim is no G-rated Disney film – or sober Jewish holy day. The chaotic revelry reflects Purim’s complexity. Costume parades and rowdy drunkenness generate clouds of confusion and moral ambiguity – ad d’lo yada! The Hebrew phrase, meaning “until you can’t distinguish,” encourages drinking so much that the villainous Haman blurs with the heroic Mordecai and Esther – while innocent kids masquerade as murderers.

Such hijinks teach one depressing lesson, one confounding lesson, and one inspiring lesson.

Alas, evil persists, generation after generation, and must be fought aggressively. Evil can be active like Haman’s, or passive like Ahasuerus’s, whose weakness facilitates Haman’s malevolence.

Shushan Purim celebrations amid ongoing coronavirus outbreak in Jerusalem, Feb. 28, 2021 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Shushan Purim celebrations amid ongoing coronavirus outbreak in Jerusalem, Feb. 28, 2021 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

We should “thank” Vladimir Putin and Haman for teaching that words matter, that we must pay attention when sharks like Putin threaten Ukraine, or – Americans and Europeans, please note – when genocidal Iranian mullahs threaten Israel and America (i.e. “Little Satan” and “Big Satan”).

But Purim also warns against self-righteousness. In blurring Haman with their heroes, the rabbis taught that although some people are inherently evil, others can do bad by not doing enough good. And beware, most of us flirt with evil impulses. This struggle makes life’s ethical drama an ever-unfolding Technicolor movie punctuated by grays, not a monolithic black-and-white snapshot at birth consecrating you – or condemning you – for life.

Even with Mordecai’s and Esther’s heroism, they are imperfect. Mordecai manipulates, essentially pimping out his niece to the king. Esther dissimulates, denying her Jewish identity until the dramatic, 11th-hour reveal. Ultimately, they act virtuously and save their people. Nevertheless, their moral meanderings challenge us to respond ethically to situations rather than simply assuming our inherent goodness.

In that spirit, and remembering that costumes often represent fantasies about ourselves we seek to play out, I urge every world leader to puff on Winston Churchill cigars or don Superman capes, then impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine while cutting off all oil imports from Russia, even if that riles environmentalists and hurts Western pocketbooks.

I beg Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to wear Menachem Begin glasses, and prepare, if his pinstripe suit diplomacy fails, to condemn Putin and his henchmen unequivocally.

And I challenge Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked to try Golda Meir-style orthopedic shoes along with Miriam Naor judicial robes, then waive that insane NIS 10,000 better-not-be-a-non-Jewish refugee “deposit” for arriving Ukrainians and warmly welcome thousands of desperate refugees from Putin’s megalomania, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

MOST INSPIRATIONAL, however, is ad d’lo yada’s redemptive quality. Confusing good and bad suggests that life is dynamic – if they genuinely repent, bad people can become good. For Jews, who find themselves rooting for Ukrainians despite centuries of antisemitism, it is a timely lesson, especially because Ukraine is led by a Jewish ex-comedian whom Vladimir Putin has branded a neo-Nazi.

For Americans caught in a painful reckoning about the past, watching Jews sympathize with a people that tormented their ancestors well into the 20th-century illuminates a path toward healing over historic sins toward blacks, toward Natives, toward immigrants.

The cliché that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it is half right. Those who cannot forget a little and forgive a lot are simply condemned. Those stuck in the past remain stuck. Expectations count; viewing people generously is the first step toward healing. Most people won’t seek redemption if victims of injustice deem everyone around them irredeemable.

More simple – and satisfying – is the message that comes from munching on hamentashen, those sweet, triangular, filling-filled doughy delicacies evoking Haman’s three-cornered hat. While eating them, Jews toast the miracle of Jewish resilience, the relevant lesson that while Jew-haters or tyrants may keep attacking, Jews will keep resisting.

Packaging those hamentashen with other goodies as mishloah manot, gifts to send to friends and the poor, performs a quintessentially human magic. Beyond our remarkable capacity to survive, people have a celestial ability to do good, transforming curses into blessings. Rather than feeling too triumphal by arrogantly devouring those Haman-hats, generously sharing them reinforces a humbling, humane message to take responsibility for others, because community counts.

Villains specialize in peddling despair. From Haman to Putin, bullies have long demonstrated great skill in demoralizing others, playing to the pessimists among us, mocking optimists. Regularly scheduled festivals like Purim counter those contrarians. Rituals celebrating victories – especially after near misses – reassure. They help many cope with the terrors of today by playacting fantasies about happy endings tomorrow validated by the triumphs of yesterday.

And orchestrating chaos annually, as Purim, Mardi Gras, and other carnivals do, offers the surprisingly soothing message that life is not out of control. Telling the Purim story, year after year, of horrors averted and victories achieved, strengthens the resilience that the Jewish people has needed for millennia, and that so many of us in the West need at this stressful moment.

The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and three on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky, was published by Public Affairs of Hachette.