Ancient holiday meets modern needs

What could be better? A holiday where everyone dresses up in costumes, goes to parties, eats delicious holiday goodies, gives out treats to friends and family, and drinks themselves senseless. Halloween? No, Purim.

Purim is a Jewish holiday, commemorating the defeat of Haman, the wicked Prime Minister of Persia, who sought to annihilate the Jews living in Persia and confiscate all their money and property for his own. Was Haman beaten by the force of G-d? By legions of Jewish warriors or daring rebels like the Maccabees? No, Haman was defeated by wiles of an old Jewish man, Mordecai, and his lovely cousin, Esther, the Queen of Persia.

Esther was an orphan, raised by Mordecai, in ancient Persia, where the Jews, displaced from Israel by the Babylonians, had fled. The king of Persia, Ahasuerus, had divorced his wife, Vashti, for refusing to appear before him wearing only her crown when summoned while he partied with his friends and soldiers. As is always the case, a search was conducted amongst the kingdom’s virgins to find a replacement for the Queen. Esther, young and beautiful, won with Mordecai’s coaching but she did not reveal she was a Jew.

Later, Haman, annoyed by Mordecai’s refusal to bow before him, plotted to kill not only Mordecai but all the Jews. Learning of the plot, Mordecai enlisted Esther, telling her she must plead her people’s case before the King. To appear before the King without a summons meant death, but after fasting for three days, Esther gathered up her courage and appeared. The King was not displeased and sought to reward her. Esther invited the King and Haman to a feast in her private quarters. Two more times she invited them back, as Ahasuerus was very taken with her. On the third night when he asked her what he could give her to show his pleasure, up to half his kingdom, Esther, informed him of Haman’s plot and asked him not to kill her people. The King ordered that Haman be hanged on the very gallows that Haman had erected to hang Mordecai.

But having signed the order crafted and concealed by Haman, the King could not undo the evil that was about to befall the Jews. Instead, he allowed Mordecai and Esther to issue a new order in his name authorizing the Jews to slaughter anyone who was about to do them harm. The Jews found 75,000 likely assailants in the Persian Empire, which stretched from India to Ethiopia at the time, to kill, including all of Haman’s ten sons. Mordecai became the Prime Minister, Esther remained the Queen, and the Jews prospered in Persia. It was ordered that feasting and drinking, reading the Megillah (the Book of Esther) while making enough noise to drown out Haman’s name, and giving to the poor be done every year thereafter to commemorate Esther’s bravery.

A holiday dedicated to the bravery of a woman, brought about by a woman’s refusal to obey her husband’s orders! My kind of holiday. This year Purim resonated especially with me as I watched politicians and leaders demean and denigrate women in the name of politics. I thought of Vashti who refused to appear nude to entertain her husband’s drunken allies and Esther who braved the King’s wrath to save her people. I thought of my own daughter, who is named for Esther, fighting to obtain her long-sought after doctoral degree and to retain her internship, which had been cut to save money and leave dozens of children and their parents without testing and guidance in dealing with autism. And I thought of my son, working for a woman seeking public office to change some of the attitudes and actions that still exist against women.

I thought of my son and daughter who so loved as toddlers to dress up for Purim, banging on my pots and pans every time Haman’s name was mentioned, while their father read from the Megillah on the nights they were too young to be taken to shul to celebrate the holiday. They celebrated with such abandon the victory of good over evil, of freedom over enslavement.

My daughter was Esther every year, my son was almost always the King who loved her and learned to be tolerant and conscientious.

And I thought especially during the past week celebrating women that what we really needed was another Esther to be brave and save us all from the modern day Persians – the Iranians – who once again seek to annihilate the Jews and all of us who love freedom.


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