Jews celebrated the holiday of Purim from the evening of Feb. 28 through the day of March 1, which was the 14th day of the month of Adar.
Like many of the Jewish holidays, Purim is a celebration of deliverance of the Jewish people from a wicked person who sought to kill them. If you have read the Biblical Book of Esther, you may know the story.
Esther was a young, beautiful Jewish woman living in Shushan, Persia in the 5th Century BCE, and was chosen in a “beauty contest” to marry the Persian king, Ahasuerus. When she married the king, he didn’t know that she was Jewish and she didn’t tell him.
Haman, the “Grand Vizier” who hated Jews, convinced the King to kill all the Jews in Shushan on the 14th day of the month of Adar. This date was chosen by the King’s magicians by casting lots or “pur,” plural “purim.”
When Esther’s uncle Mordechai heard about Haman’s plot, he convinced Esther that she needed to ask the King to stop Haman’s plans, no matter what it took. But, according to the rules of the court, Esther was not allowed to approach the King unless he specifically invited her.
Esther chose to risk approaching the King uninvited, to intervene for her people. She revealed to Ahasuerus that she herself was Jewish, and would be killed if Haman’s plan went forward. Ahasuerus stopped the planned slaughter and instead of killing Esther, Mordechai and the Jews of Shushan, he had Haman hanged for his crimes.
As a result all Jews celebrate the deliverance of the Jews of Shushan on the 14th of Adar.
If you carefully read the Book of Esther, you will note that God is never mentioned in the book. Also, scholars agree that the name “Esther” is derived from the name of the Babylonian goddess “Ishtar.” Furthermore, Esther is an example of a Jewish woman who married a non-Jew—an intermarriage.
These are all aspects of Esther that many very religious Jews would find objectionable. Yet the rabbis who put together the Jewish Bible felt that this book, with all these “flaws” was still important enough to include in the canon that became the Jewish Bible (and later the Christian Old Testament).
Many modern Jewish women, including myself, find some aspects of the story of Esther distasteful and disturbing. Esther was forced to become a member of the harem of a lascivious king. This king had recently gotten rid of his previous favorite concubine, Vashti, because she would not obey his drunken commands and submit to sexual harassment and assault.
Esther had no choice in her fate, as was common in the fifth century BCE, and as continued to be common until the 21st century in much of the world. However, we should be proud that Esther, after being forced into the position, stood up to the king and to Haman and saved her people. I can imagine that if Esther lived today, quite possibly she would have been a leader in the #MeToo movement.
She found her inner strength and she used her political skills to insure the survival of the Jewish people. That took a lot of guts.
We know that many times during history tyrants have tried to wipe out the Jewish people. At Purim we celebrate the bravery of Esther and Mordechai, who were able to save the Jews of Shushan from one such tyrant so long ago.
Today we stand in solidarity with those of all nations and all faiths who struggle today against tyranny and for freedom to worship according to their own lights. We must acknowledge that today, even in our country, there are people who are attacked and murdered because of how they worship. It has only gotten worse over the last year.
We Jews have seen this far too often before, and we need to fight against this un-American behavior. But today, Jewish women all over the country are reaching out to women of other faiths to work in solidarity for a more just society and world. We know that we are all children of the same God. Let us all pray for better understanding and tolerance among all peoples, and work for civility in our society and political system.