Purim – Past and Present
There are 5 major religious holidays listed in the Torah. In calendar order, they are Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
Absent from this list are two additional holidays commemorating miracles of Jewish survival; Hanukkah and Purim. These were instituted by rabbinic authority in the periods after their occurrence; the 2nd & 6th centuries BCE respectively.
Though not Biblically mandated, we have four Mitzvot (positive deeds) associated with Purim – 1) Listening to the Megillah, 2) Giving Money to the Poor (Matanot LaEvyonim) – at least two people, 3) Bringing Food to Friends (Mishloah Manot) – at least one person and 4) Joining a Festive Meal (Seudat Purim).
Purim 5780 is on Monday evening and Tuesday, corresponding to 9-10 March 2020. The story, found in the Book of Esther, has as much relevance today as it had 2500 years ago – and especially to Mitzvah Day readers.
During the 6th century BCE reign of Persian King Ahashverosh, his evil regent Haman tried to annihilate the Jews via a royal decree of genocide. Haman’s motive was racial hatred. He accused the Jews of disloyalty and hoped to inflame the majority population to rise up and kill them. Haman’s failure eventually came about through the hubris of his own arrogance.
Instrumental in his downfall and credited with saving the Jewish people, were Queen Esther and her Uncle Mordechai. It is well-known that even though this breathtaking story was included in the Hebrew Bible, it doesn’t have a single mention of the Divine name of God. Instead, it can be read as a complex political intrigue.
The pivotal moment in the story occurs when Esther, unpredictably selected as the new queen of the empire several years earlier, but told by Mordechai to hide her Jewish identity, was asked to intervene.
Having heard of the calamity awaiting the Jews, Mordechai sent word to Esther to approach the King and plead on behalf of her people. But court protocol didn’t allow a Queen free access to the throne, and Esther who until then had been a hidden Jewess, prevaricated.
“Then Mordechai sent a reply to Esther; ‘Don’t stand by quietly, thinking you – from among all the Jews – will escape harm in the King’s Palace. For if you remain silent at this moment, salvation will arise from somewhere else, and you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows, this may be the very reason you rose to royal position.”
Contradicting the earlier instructions to his niece and sensing the gravity of the crisis, Mordechai pressed Esther to intercede. Cleverly and with great courage, she devised a plan of action, and with subtle Divine intervention, Haman was defeated.
The two important messages behind Purim are; first, in recognizing that we must oppose those whose motives are to sow seeds of hatred, regardless of who the target might be. Regrettably, we’re seeing an unchecked resurgence of such behaviour on social media and in the public sphere.
And, second, each of us has a personal destiny – and at any moment in time, we can be called to act on that charge. We become aware of our calling by listening to the quiet inner voice of our souls.
Those accustomed to social action already know what this means. For some it is addressing injustice, volunteering to assist the homeless, feeding the hungry, supporting those with mental health issues, giving blood, looking after the environment and more. For others, it is that first unsteady, courageous step forward, wanting to contribute in a small way to making the world a better place.
Here at Mitzvah Day, we wish you a joyous Purim and the opportunity to take to heart lessons from the Past and bring them robustly into the Present.
Rabbi Jeff Berger is Interfaith Advisor for Mitzvah Day and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.