Jews celebrated the Holiday of Purim starting the evening of March 9 through the day on March 10, 2020.
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.
You may know the story because it is recounted in the Biblical book of Esther. Esther was a young, beautiful, Jewish woman in Shushan, Persia, who won 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.
Besides Esther and the King, there are two other important protagonists in this story — Mordechai and Haman. Mordechai was Esther’s uncle, and a man who had at one time saved the life of the King. Haman was the “Grand Vizier,” who hated Jews, especially Mordechai.
Haman convinced the King (who seemed to be a fool) to kill all the Jews in Shushan on the 14th day of the month of Adar. This day was chosen by the King’s magicians casting lots or “pur,” plural “purim,” to choose the date. When Mordechai heard about Haman’s plot, he told Esther that she needed to convince the King to stop Haman’s plans, no matter what it took.
According to the rules of the court, Esther was not allowed to approach the King unless invited. But Esther chose to risk her own life in 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 Mordechai and his people, had Haman hanged for his crimes.
As a result, all Jews celebrate the deliverance of the Jews of Shushan on the 14th of Adar, the holiday of Purim.
Purim is a jolly holiday—a day of feasting, gladness and sending gifts to the poor. Many Jews and congregations hold parties in which both children and adults get dress up, often as Esther and Mordechai, in a sort of Jewish Mardi Gras.
A popular food is “Hamantaschen” which means “Haman’s ears.” These are delicious, triangular shaped cookies filled with poppyseeds or cherries or other candied fruits. One important Purim celebration is “Shalach-manot,” which means “sending gifts” of food to friends and neighbors and to the poor in the community. Frequently these are gifts of homemade Hamantaschen.
The most important Purim celebration is the reading of the Megillah or “Megillat Esther,” the biblical the Book of Esther, from beginning to the end, with all the congregation, adults and children, present.
The normal rules of synagogue behavior are suspended during the reading of the Megillah. People yell and make lots of noise—and they are supposed to do that. Many people use a “grager,” which is a noisemaker, during the reading of the Megillah. Every time the name of Haman is mentioned, people swing their gragers and stamp their feet, and yell. Why? Because we want to drown out the name of Haman who was a wicked man. We want Haman’s name “erased” from memory, while the name of Mordechai is to be remembered forever with blessing.
As a woman, I feel conflicting emotions about the Purim story, because it seems to me that Esther was exploited. She was selected to be Ahasuerus’s concubine after he got rid of Vashti, his previous concubine, who, according to tradition, had refused to dance naked for him and his friends.
I remember when my daughter was 6 years old and won a synagogue Purim costume contest for the best Esther costume. She enjoyed dressing up and enjoyed the attention. But today, the thought of little girls dressing up as Esther makes me cringe because it seems to emphasize beauty instead of brains, courage and creativity.
Is there some way we can re-valorize the role of the women in the Purim story? We need to emphasize Vashti’s courage in saying “no” to exploitation—even to her peril. And we need to emphasize Esther’s courage in demanding justice from Ahasuerus, even when she put herself in peril to counter Haman’s schemes. This holiday should be seen as an example of courageous women, and we need to emphasize that to our daughters.
Even in the midst of an exploitive society thousands of years ago, these women were strong and courageous. That is a timeless example for us.
We know that many times during history that tyrants have tried to wipe out the Jewish people. At Purim, we celebrate that Esther’s bravery saved the Jews of Shushan from one such tyrant so long ago. But we also 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.
Emily Burt-Hedrick is the President of the Congregation Beth Tikvah.
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