What Can Purim Teach Us Today?

Purim commemorates the rescue of the Jewish people from a plot to annihilate them, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Esther. The story involves a Persian official named Haman who seeks to exterminate the Jewish population of Persia. However, his plans are foiled by Esther, a Jewish queen, and her cousin Mordecai.

The story of Purim serves as a warning about the perils of antisemitism and the misuse of power. It emphasizes the dangers of discrimination and prejudice and the potential consequences when these negative attitudes are allowed to influence those in positions of authority. The holiday is typically celebrated with recitations of the Book of Esther, joyful feasts, and charitable donations while reflecting on its more profound moral and historical significance.

The Salvation of the Jews: How Mordechai and Esther Foiled Haman’s Plot in Ancient Persia

Haman, who was the second-in-command to King Ahasuerus of the Persian Empire, managed to persuade the king to issue a decree that would lead to the killing of all Jews living in the 127 lands of the Persian Empire.

However, Haman’s evil plan was thwarted by Mordechai, a Jew and his cousin Esther, who was the queen of Ahasuerus. The whole story of how they saved their people is recounted in the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther. This scroll is read annually in the homes or synagogues of Jews worldwide.

“When Haman saw that Mordechai would neither kneel nor prostrate himself before him, Haman became full of wrath. But it seemed contemptible to him to lay hands on Mordechai alone, for they had told him Mordechai’s nationality, and Haman sought to destroy all the Jews who were throughout Ahasuerus’s entire kingdom, Mordechai’s people.”

Haman said to King Ahasuerus:

“There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples throughout all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws differ from [those of] every people, and they do not keep the king’s laws; it is [therefore] of no use for the king to let them be. If it pleases the king, let it be written to destroy them, and I will weigh out ten thousand silver talents into the hands of those who perform the work, to bring [it] into the king’s treasuries.”

The king took the ring off his hand, gave it to Haman, and said to him:

“The silver is given to you, and the people to do to them as it pleases you.”

Understanding Prejudice: The Resilience and Targeting of the Jewish Community

  • Prejudice originates in the beliefs and attitudes of individuals and is often based on personal biases and assumptions rather than on objective reality. Although Jews have a unique culture, they have been able to live alongside other civilizations for more than two thousand years. One of their fundamental values is to honour and comply with the laws of the societies in which they reside, which includes offering prayers for the well-being of the ruling authorities.
  • In addition, we notice that certain biases often stem from stereotypes that wrongly assume that all group members have the same characteristics. These ideas may be based loosely on real-life interactions. Still, once accepted as “facts,” they can lead to the isolation and condemnation of the group without considering reality.
  • The Jewish community is often targeted for destruction due to financial motives.

Purim’s Universal Message Against Discrimination

Purim commemorates the survival of the Jewish people as a minority in the diaspora, particularly highlighting their resilience against persecution in ancient Persia, as depicted in the Book of Esther. While it may not be the first literary paradigm for antisemitism, racism, or persecution, Purim serves as a significant narrative that resonates with experiences of discrimination faced by various minority groups, including Black people, Indigenous populations, immigrants, and ethnic minorities. These shared themes underscore the universal nature of discrimination, each with its unique narrative. As expressed in the Rogers and Hammerstein song, these narratives echo the struggle against prejudice and injustice across different cultures and historical contexts.

“You have got to be taught to hate and fear. You have got to be carefully taught.”

The Roots of Nazi Antisemitism

Nazi antisemitism was founded on the notion that Jews were engaged in a deadly conspiracy against the German people. The Nazis charged that the Jews had “stabbed Germany in the back” during the First World War, thereby engineering its loss. At the start of World War I, 12,000 German Jews volunteered for the German Army. Of the 100,000 Jews who served with the German military – a very high proportion relative to their numbers:

  • 70,000 Jews fought at the front line.
  • Three thousand were promoted to officer ranks.
  • Twelve thousand were killed in action.

During the outbreak of World War I, the Federation of German Jews requested the introduction of Field Rabbis in the German Army. This was something that did not exist before in the German Empire. In response, eighty-one German rabbis volunteered to serve as Field Rabbis in August 1914. The first seven of these, including Rabbi Leo Baeck, began their service the following month. Unfortunately, Rabbi Baeck’s service to Germany did not protect him from being imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.

Every act of antisemitism – from shoving a Jew on the street to mass murder – has conspiracy and demonization at its roots. In the Middle Ages, the common folk believed that their Jewish neighbours had poisoned the wells and were the source of the spread of the Black Death. This prompted massacres and expulsions. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a well-known 19th-century book by the Czarist government, purports to record a meeting of influential Jews scheming to control the world’s finances. It has no basis. This book prompts libels about Jews and their supposed control of money and power, resulting in slanders of Israel, the Rothschilds, the Jewish financier Soros, and a general suspicion that all Jews aim to “control the world.”

Deborah Lipstadt, the genocide/holocaust scholar, points out that demonized groups can be either successful or victimized.

“The racist ‘punches down’ and loathes persons of colour because they are apparently ‘lesser than’ the white person. They are, the racist proclaims, not as smart, industrious, qualified, or worthy. In contrast, the antisemite ‘punches up.’ The Jew is supposedly more powerful, ingenious, and financially adept than the non-Jew. Neither of these is true; they separate and isolate one group from the other.”

Lessons from the Megillah Text and the Joy of Purim Celebration

The Megillah text teaches us valuable insights about the social and psychological webs in which we are all entangled, personally and communally. Each character in the story – Haman, Mordechai, Esther, Vashti (the King’s first wife), and Zeresh (Haman’s wife) – writes their individual level, exemplifying this fact.

The Megillah text continues to be a source of inspiration for satire, character study, and politics, offering essential messages that are relevant to our times. Above all, it inspires one of the most joyful days of the Jewish year: Purim. On this day, we are encouraged to dress up in costume, drink heartily until we can’t distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys, exchange gifts of sweets with our neighbours, give money to the poor, have a shared feast, and enjoy the moment with singing, dancing, and homegrown plays.

The timeless lessons of Purim continue to resonate deeply today. The triumph of Mordechai and Esther over Haman’s schemes reminds us of the ongoing threat of antisemitism and the abuse of power, emphasizing the importance of confronting discrimination and prejudice. Beyond the Jewish community, Purim speaks to the resilience of humanity against injustice, urging us to combat bias in all its forms.

This is a lot to unpack. Happy Purim!

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