by Rabbi Daniel smith
Underlying Purim’s frivolous fun, there are serious themes. Time and again, powerful forces have risen to destroy us, yet we survived against the odds.
On Purim, we shout down the name of Haman, but his chilling words to King Ahasuerus continue to threaten us: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; and their laws are diverse from every other people; neither keep they the king’s laws, and it does not profit the king to let them be.”
Purim shows how easily a minority can be isolated and targeted for political purposes. If we find ourselves using words like Haman’s about other minorities – that should give us serious pause for thought.
Purim raises issues of multiculturalism versus assimilation. Mordechai played a leading role in the wider community while remaining strong in his Jewish identity – an example to all of us. Esther shows one can be in an interfaith marriage yet remain a vital member of the Jewish community.
Purim also raises the philosophical debate about free will versus determinism. The name ‘Purim’ comes from the word pur, which means ‘lot’ as in ‘lottery’. The Hebrew suggests that Haman had stones thrown – perhaps some kind of dice – to see what was a good day to attack Jews.
The 13th day of the month of Adar was declared auspicious for his plans, but it turned out disastrous for Haman. He and his forces were defeated, and the following day was declared a day of feasting and gladness for Jews. So is life a lottery, dependent on blind chance and the throw of the dice – or is it purposeful and meaningful? Is life beshert, predestined and foreseen, or does it depend on our choices? The usual Jewish answer is “Yes” to both possibilities.
Rabbi Akiva summed it up in four Hebrew words: “Hacol tzafui vehareshut netunah,” which translates as ”All is foreseen, and choice is given”. (Avot 3.15). When Mordechai discovers Haman’s wicked plans, he tells Esther it is up to her to go to the king and save her people.
Initially Esther seems hesitant, as if to say the task is too much for her and she would have to risk death to do it. Mordechai tells Esther that this is her opportunity to make a difference.
He says: “Who knows whether you have not come to your position for such a time as this?” We all can be heroes. Who knows whether we are in the right time and place to do something special? Either way, Purim allows adults to play like children, enjoy a party and have fun. Happy Purim.
- Daniel Smith is rabbi at Edgware and District Reform Synagogue