Purim, celebrated this year on the night of March 23 and the following day, is considered the most fun-filled religious observance of the Jewish year. It’s an occasion for feasting, giving and masquerading, as well as noisemaker-twirling and foot-stomping in the synagogue at the mention of the name of the villain, Haman. This week’s clergy discuss the meaning of the Bible story behind the merrymaking.
Rabbi Andy Gordon
Temple Sinai of Roslyn
There is an old joke that many of the Jewish holidays can be described in one line: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” In the case of Purim, it is literally true. Haman, the chief minister of Persia, felt slighted that “Mordecai the Jew” did not bow down before him. In a moment of rage, Haman asked the bumbling King Ahasuerus for the ability to destroy the entire Jewish people in an act of final revenge. When Mordecai and the Jewish people heard the news, they were dumbfounded. Their only hope was the beautiful Queen Esther, who at the last minute approached the king, telling him that she was in danger because she was Jewish. The king, hearing these words, remitted his decree and the people were saved. On March 23, Jews around the world will gather to celebrate with merriment and eat delicious cookies called hamantaschen. Purim is one of our most joyous Jewish holidays, a time to celebrate that goodness can overcome evil. Most interestingly, the story of Purim is the only book of the Hebrew Bible that does not mention God’s name. In the Bible, it is God who performs miraculous acts to save the people. But here, Esther and Mordecai join together to raise their voices and speak out for justice. We can learn from their example and remember that it is in our hands to make a difference in the world.
Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank
Midway Jewish Center Syosset
The joy of Purim is really quite logical. It’s about the bad guys losing, big time. The biblical Book of Esther, chanted in the synagogue amid a congenial tumult of song and noisemaking, is the story of an ancient Jewish Persian community threatened by a hateful and power-hungry senior official, Haman. He persuades the king to massacre all the Jews. Unbeknownst to Haman is a beloved Jewish queen in the king’s court, Esther, who together with her cousin Mordecai, expose Haman for his bigotry, turning the tale into one of Jewish victory. For centuries, Jews have identified with a story reflecting the anxieties and fantasies of a community in exile, one with no political clout and vulnerable to the whims of demagogues. Its historical authenticity is questionable, yet its themes have spoken deeply to the Jewish people. Because Esther and her community acted boldly and collaboratively, they discover their inner, godly strength and thus prevail. On Purim, children dress like kings, queens, villains, and minions (at least this year), go to parties, exchange gifts, and give charity. Esther’s tale has especially attuned the Jewish people to work against all the “isms” that would scapegoat minorities, racially or sexually, and mark them as inimical. So, yes, Purim is pure joy, for whenever the good triumphs over evil — and it does happen — that’s reason for great celebration.
Rabbi Mendy Goldberg
Lubavitch of the East End, Coram
On a simplistic and historic level, Purim is a unique holiday by way of what was about to occur. It was the only time in history when the Jewish nation as a whole was threatened with, God forbid, absolute decimation. As in Haman’s plan to the king of Persia, “Men, women, and children in the entire kingdom of 127 countries were to be wiped out on the 13th day of Adar.” (Esther 3:13) With the miraculous change of events, Haman’s plot was foiled, while he and his sons were hanged, and the Jews were victorious over their enemies. Hence the celebration entails reading the megillah (scroll of the Esther), remembering the events that occurred 2,500 years ago, sharing the holiday with the needy by giving charity to at least two needy people, sharing the holiday spirit by giving gifts of two ready-made foods to at least one other person, and having a festive meal. However there is more to the story. The history of our nation is very much compared to the human life span. Through the course of a lifetime every person undergoes drastic changes; fluctuation being the most consistent feature of life. There is, however, one constant: the very identity and essence of the person. John Doe remains John Doe. The same is true with our nation. We have ups and downs, both spiritually and materially, but our very identity, the fact that we are God’s chosen nation, is never affected. Purim celebrates a time when we were at a low point in our history — but our relationship with God remained intact. Its joy is therefore greater than the joy of any other holiday, because it demonstrates the essential nature of our relationship with God — and that is a constant.