This month we celebrate Purim, a holiday that commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from the tyrant Haman in ancient Persia. Haman, a high-ranking official in King Ahasuerus’ court, plotted to kill all of the Jews in the Empire. Why? Because Mordecai, a Jew, refused to bow down to him.
When Mordecai heard about Haman’s plot, he went to his cousin Esther and pleaded with her to help. He knew that only she could save them. At that time, Esther was the Queen of Persia, the wife of King Ahasurerus. Only the King had the power to stop Haman from carrying out his deadly plans, and Esther had the King’s ear. But standing up to the King was very dangerous. Without knowing the truth behind Haman’s plot, King Ahasurerus approved Haman’s decree to kill every Jew in the land. Anyone who challenged the King’s or his officers’ orders could be punished by death. To make matters worse, the King didn’t know that his Queen was Jewish. He could kill her for deceiving him.
It took tremendous courage for Esther to confront her husband the King. She hesitated at first, but her people’s lives were at stake. She and Mordecai devised a plan for approaching the King. Then, in spite of her fears and doubts, she spoke to her husband, told him what Haman had done and revealed her Jewish identity. In that moment she didn’t know if she would live to see another day. Yet she still believed she had made the right decision, regardless of the outcome. Her resolve was steadied by the support of her cousin Mordecai and all her ancestors who came before her. To her joy and the joy of all the Jews in the Empire, the King listened to and granted Queen Esther’s request. He overturned Haman’s decree and saved the Jewish people of Persia from extinction. In the end, the King sentenced Haman to death for his evil deeds.
The story of Esther is unique in Biblical literature. No other woman’s story in given in such detail. She was a hero in her day, is heralded by feminists today, and and continues to inspire with her courage and bravery.
As Rabbi Howard Berman says so beautifully:
Purim has a broader contemporary significance for all of us. It emerges as a major proto-feminist manifesto of equality for women in the Biblical tradition. In the midst of so many other narratives of women’s actions being defined by the cultural limitations of the ancient near east, Esther’s heroism is a powerful symbol of courage and protest. She rejected the boundaries of her role in order to confront evil and stand against oppression – even at the risk of her own life. It is ironic that the setting of this story is Persia – modern day Iran -where women’s rights and roles are still rigidly defined. For contemporary Jews, and all people, the Purim story challenges us to realize that each of us can find ourselves in positions to make a difference… as Mordechai reminded Esther,” it was for such a time as this” that she became Queen. All of us have the potential to take moral stands that can change the course of events…and it is important to remember that a Jewish woman was one of the most shining examples of this enduring truth!
Purim is customarily remembered/celebrated by reading the story as it is recorded in the Book of Esther. The reading is often a rowdy affair, with children and adults alike booing at the mention of Haman’s name and cheering when they hear Esther and Mordechai’s names. Another tradition, which I have never seen followed, requires the adults to drink until they can no longer distinguish between the names of the villain Haman and our heros, Esther and Mordecai.
Underlying the levity of this custom is a deep sense of pride and gratitude for our people’s ability to face, fight, and survive our oppressors throughout history. There are however, some rabbis and congregations that feel uncomfortable making light of such a solemn event. Instead, they read the Book of Esther without the cheers and jeers. The rabbi usually gives a sermon or engages the congregation in discussions related to the holiday. Special Purim readings are also included in the service.
Today we remember how often our people have had to face prejudice and slander, hatred and oppression. In many lands and ages, tyrants such as Haman have risen up against us, and untold suffering has been our lot. We have paid a high price for our loyalty to God and to the heritage of those who came before us.
But the same heritage has given us courage to bear our suffering with dignity and fortitude, and to remain unshaken in the conviction that, in the end, good must triumph over evil, truth over falsehood, and love over hatred.
We have survived all our oppressors, and can look back upon our history not only with sorrow for its tragedies but with joy for its deliverances and pride in its achievements.
At this season of rejoicing, inspire us anew with such loyalty to You, to our faith, and to our people, that it will offer strength against adversity. Let the heritage which has been entrusted to us ever be secure in our keeping. Amen.
Every Jewish holiday except Yom Kippur includes some special food. For Purim
the holiday treat is Hamantaschen, a three cornered cookie filled with apricots, poppy seeds, prunes or other sweets fillings. The name Hamantaschen means “Haman’s pockets” in Yiddish. The shape of the cookie symbolizes the three-cornered hat the Haman was thought to have worn.