By Rabbi Hillel
Purim, a joyful holiday marked by costumes,
Biblically-sanctioned drunkenness, and tri-cornered cookies, is
upon us. The public silliness is one of Judaism’s most
effusive celebrations, a commemoration of the story told in the
book of Esther, wherein a timid young Queen is inspired to
heights of courage, managing to save the Jewish people in Persia
from extermination at the hands of a genocidal royal
The revelry can make it hard to extract serious messages out
of Purim. In a world much too beset by anguish, violence,
hostility and injustice, a day in which we may ignore those
weighty problems is most welcome. On Purim we are to engage in
Ad lo yada, “until you can't know,” or
behaving in a such a carefree way that in our stupor we cannot
differentiate between good and bad, the righteous and the
But Purim is only one day, and then we must return to the
real world and face its problems. Retreat and escape is but a
brief respite; responding to the challenges of making the world
a place of justice and peace resumes its rightful place in our
lives once Purim is ended and we emerge from the daze of
celebration and make our way back into harsh reality.
But the truth is that harsh reality informs the holiday, as
well. When we look more closely at the Purim story – and
it might well be just a story – we encounter a Haman who
craves power and, when he gets it, abuses it. Given license to
do whatever he pleases by a king who is far more intent on
enjoying and indulging himself, Haman grabs the power and
runs wild with it.
He has long been irritated by the presence of Jews in
Shushan, we learn, for they continue to maintain their
distinctive ways. And so Haman devises a plan to get rid of the
Jews: Their laws, he tells King Ahasuerus, "are different
from those of any other people.... It is not in Your
Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.... Let an edict be
drawn for their destruction.”
We rightfully condemn Haman for abusing power and celebrate
his eventual downfall, but in our celebrations, we can fail to
see how his story serves as a cautionary tale for us, the
descendents of those he abused. Purim can be read as a tale of
Jewish survivalism – or it can be seen as a cry for
tolerance and mutual understanding.
How easy it is to abuse power! How seductive power is! The
often quoted statement by the 19th-20th century British
historian Lord Acton that “power tends to corrupt;
absolute power corrupts absolutely” is validated in the
Purim story, and can be seen throughout human history –
even, though we are loathe to admit it, in Jewish history.
Indeed, even on Purim we are reminded that it is not only
Haman who abuses power – the story of Esther ends not with
the salvation of Persia’s Jews, but with the complete
reversal of their fortunes, to the extent that they take up
arms, killing (we are told) more than 75,000 Persians.
When we contemporary Jews became affluent, when Israel
achieved stunning military victories, the risk of denying and
betraying our ancient covenant became real, the temptation to
abuse power became harder to resist. Often such abuse is done in
the name of Judaism and with the validation of Jewish teachings.
Much as the Jews in Persia felt justified in launching a
merciless attack on their would-be attackers, today’s
Jewish community often rationalizes a violent dehumanization of
the Arab peoples still at war with Israel.
Instead, we should be sensitized by the Purim story to the
destructive nature of revenge. The well-known Purim song that
rejoices that “Haman he was swinging, while Mordecai was
singing in Shu-Shu-Shushan long ago” and the other equally
well-known Purim song that says, “If guns were but
invented now, this Haman we would shoot sir” ought to make
us uncomfortable. For when we transpose the sentiments of those
songs into our everyday lives we find that it is much too easy
to deal with our adversaries in a most inhumane way.
Reconciliation is far more preferable to revenge. If we would
see an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we must, in
fact, turn to reconciliation. Only a mutually accepted
resolution of the conflict can stop the cycle of violence;
revenge can do nothing but perpetuate it..
And now another insight that ought to come to us from Purim.
In a book that has always provided me with important lessons,
Notes on an Unhurried Journey, author John A. Taylor writes
what I believe to be an appropriate message for Purim:
“It is not difficult to bring fun into our lives but it
is a life-long task to find joy.”
“Fun can be bought... Quick breaks in the routine offer
spice for otherwise dull days, and it would be cruel to deny
our, or other’s, needs.
“But the cycle of fun is short" There is a sadness in
the air when the game is over, and our friends have gone home.
It really doesn’t take long for the new car to become
‘only transportation’ or the clothes to become
unfashionable. Fun arrives, contributes its brief sensation, and
“Joy, however, is something else. More than a product
of money, it is a product of effort, time and sacrifice.
Paradoxically, it is both sought after and waited for. It is the
goal of labor and stillness. It abides at birth and death. Joy
is pried from the great stones of existence. It is the result of
long hours, hours which included both frustration and despair.
Joy often arrives at the end of a long, exhaustive effort, and
occasionally it surprises us in the midst of effort.
“Fun is escape which we all need; joy is fulfillment
which we all seek. Fun is exciting, but joy is life. What a pity
it would be if, in our quest for fun, we missed joy. What a
shame it would be to have the good things, but miss the great
things of life.”
May Purim find us making the necessary distinction between
fun and joy. Let us enjoy the day and its traditional delights,
but let us not forget joy in the hard work of helping to bring
about a world that is more just and peaceful. May we find joy in
continuing to pursue true justice and peace in the world, and
may we find joy in seeing justice and peace enveloping our
People and the entire human community.
- There are traditionally four mitzvoth in which one
should engage on Purim. The first is to hear the
Megillah read. In reading the Megillah stop
and reflect on issues of power today. Become involved if
you haven’t already: sign on to Brit Tzedek’s “Let’s
Talk” campaign and consider ways that you can become
part of the dialogue that seeks an end to power struggles, and
the birth of reconciliation.
- The second mitzvah of Purim is to engage in
mattanot la-evyonim, giving charity to the poor. Purim
is an ideal time to make special contributions to organizations
that help the poor; consider making a contribution to the New
Israel Fund which funds programs for Israel’s
underprivileged as well as fighting for economic and social
equity at the national level. (At 24.4 percent,
Israel’s poverty rate is the highest in the Western world;
35.2% of all children live under the official “poverty
- The third mitzvah of Purim is to give gifts of food
to others – mishloach manot. Prepare plates or
bags of goodies for family and friends and include a note
expressing your hope that the world be blessed with the
sweetness of justice and peace. Consider contributing to the
American Task Force on Palestine’s “Palestinian
Humanitarian Aid Fund” to provide direct assistance to
needy Palestinians. (Haaretz recently reported that “the
Palestinian economy shrank 21 percent in the fourth quarter of
2006 compared with the previous year, suffering from the effects
of international sanctions and restricted flow of goods into the
- The fourth mitzvah is to enjoy a Purim
se-udah, a festive meal. Gather friends and family together
and as part of the meal reflect on the need for change in the
world. Use the opportunity to tell them about the
“Let’s Talk” campaign at letstalk.btvshalom.org,
and encourage them to become involved.
Cohn served as rabbi of Congregation Emanu El in San
Bernardino from 1963 to 2001. He is now Rabbi Emeritus of the
congregation. A native of Germany, he was brought to the
United States as an infant by his parents who were refugees from
Nazism. Since 2002 he has been serving as the interim
part-time rabbi of Adat Ari El in Las Vegas, NV and writes
a regular column for the Las Vegas Israelite on “Being
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