Of all the happy holidays in the Jewish calendar, Purim, the Feast of Esther, is a favorite. What makes it so popular? Is it the fragrant hamantashen, with their sticky-sweet surprises of poppy seed or prune filling ? Is it the fun of dressing up in costume to emulate king or queen, scholar or scoundrel? Or is it the opportunity to enjoy a scenario and participate by hissing the villain or cheering the hero?
Yes, perhaps that’s really it…the chance for everyone to dig in and participate . . to relate to the ancient history of our people in a more personal way. Still, that participation should be based on a deeper understanding of the central theme and reason for the Purim celebration.
The story of Esther is more than just an exciting event in Jewish history. It bears real relevance to modern Jewry through some striking parallels.
The Purim story took place in Persia at the pinnacle of that country’s civilization. Although King Cyrus had decreed earlier that the Jews could return to their homeland from the Babylonian captivity, some had chosen not to return. Rather than face the hardships of pioneer life, they had opted for the comfort and seeming security of their Persian homes. They had become acculturated to Persian ways, even taking pagan names, the name Esther being derived from the goddess Astarte or Ishtar, and the name Mordecai probably being related to Marduk, Babylon’s patron deity.
Similarly, today we have a Jewish homeland, the State of Israel, where many Jewish pioneers have made the desert bloom. Yet, most of us elect to live in other lands, where we are comfortable, rather than claim our birthright. Through generations, we have become acculturated to our adopted homelands, taking on their customs, language and names. In this way, we modern Jews share a similar situation with Esther and Mordecai and the other Persian Jews of that time.
From only a perfunctory reading of the Book of Esther, one sees quite easily the surface theme, the triumph of good over evil.
And truly this, by itself, would be enough basis for a joyful celebration such as Purim. Yet, the Purim story bears a deeper significance, that of a promise fulfilled.
In Genesis 12:3, God promised Abram, And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curseth thee…” Haman, the villain of the Purim story, falls, of course, into the latter category of God’s promise. God promised in the Bible that there would always be Jewish people, the seed of Abraham, on this earth; but old Haman thought otherwise. Haman sealed his own doom when he challenged the promise of the Almighty by trying to destroy the Jews. Not only did God judge Haman’s life forfeit, but He required exactly the same punishment that Haman had himself devised against Mordecai. And thus God curses all those who dare to curse the Jews, the apple of His eye.
That promise of God to Abram was not meant only for Bible times. It still holds true. In our own generation, another man came who dared to think he could annihilate the Jewish people. He robbed us of our livelihoods, tried to strip away our dignity, and eventually took many of our lives. This modern day Haman walled us up in ghettos and behind barbed wire. Today, Germany herself is divided, torn in two by a barbed wire wall.* The crimes she perpetrated are forever imprinted upon the pages of history as an example of inhumanity.
The modern State of Israel is another promise fulfilled. There are those who worry that Israel will be destroyed. This cannot happen, for those who work for the deliverance of the Jewish people will not be defeated. Instead, through belief in God’s promise of preservation, they will be blessed:
“Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil; he shall preserve thy soul.”
God’s promises are sure. He continues to protect and preserve our people against all odds, so that the world may know that He is real and that He keeps His word.