By Rabbi Hillel Cohn             

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 official.

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 wicked.

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 leaves.

“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.

Suggestions for Purim:

  1. 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.

  2. 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 line.”)

  3. 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 Gaza Strip.”)

  4. 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.


Rabbi Hillel 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 Jewish.”

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