Esther and Mordechai's Week From Hell: The Meaning of Purim in the Winter of 2015


Last week, an unusual headline ran on CNN's homepage -- "Religion's Week from Hell." This dramatic title graced the website's lead story by religion editor Daniel Burke, which provided an analysis and overview of horrific events of the previous week that were committed in the name of God.

Beginning with the kidnappings in Cameroon and a car bomb in Niger by Boko Haram and concluding with the terror attacks in Copenhagen and the videotaped beheading of Egyptian Christians by members of ISIS, any reasonable reader would agree with Burke's hellish assessment of the previous week, as viewed through the lens of religion.

In perilous times, people are often forced into forsake their more nuanced philosophy of humankind and the world. Certainly, the highly publicized campaign of terror initiated by ISIS has caused a global tremor of anxiety and has served to destabilize the notion of a civilized world.

A Good vs. Evil paradigm prevails during days such as ours, which is only aided and exacerbated by revelations that the leaders of ISIS justify their brutal actions by holding an absolutist belief in the evil of those whose faith differs from theirs.

For Jews, the multiple, mounting incidents of aggression and threats against our people, Israel and Jewish institutions around the world - but particularly in Europe -- has evoked a dormant insecurity and worry that a return to the bad old days looms on the horizon. For some, pronouncements such as those by Israeli Prime Minster Netanyahu that it is time for European Jews to "come home" only increase the sense of imminent danger.

It is against the backdrop of this very troubled time that the holiday of Purim approaches...and with it, the important message: Do Not Lose Hope For You Have Been Here Before.

Next week, we will gather in our synagogues, schools and community centers to read an ancient story from a scroll whose headline might just as well be "Esther and Mordechai's Week from Hell." Some of us will come dressed in costume, as is the tradition, and many of us will bring noise makers so that we might drown out the sound of the name of the arch anti-Semite Haman, who had orchestrated a plan to destroy the Jews of Shushan, Persia, many centuries ago.

This year, as in every year since the Scroll of Esther was written, we will read how Haman, miffed that Mordechai the Jew did not show him the proper deference, concocted his plan for revenge -- a complete destruction of the local Jewish community, in other words, a Holocaust.

Through teamwork, chutzpah and brilliant strategizing, Mordechai and his niece Esther -- who moved into the royal court by charming the ditzy, besotted Persian king into marrying her -- foil the evil plan and save their people from destruction.

The Scroll of Esther ends with Haman's execution and communal celebration in the face of the redemption of the Persian Jewish community. The spirit of the holiday as passed down through the ages is joyous and characterized by parties - often no-holds barred affairs with dancing, drinking, feasts and gift-giving.

Though many contemporary Jews regard the festival of Purim as based on something other than history, Purim's themes persist because fiction is often truer than fact. Though Mordechai, Esther, Haman and King Achashverosh might be the products of an author's imagination, plots to exterminate the Jewish People are all-too-real and inextricable from history itself.

Indeed, it is from the Scroll of Esther that the shorthand, rabblerousing reference to Jews -- a certain people -- hails. Says Haman to King Ahashverosh, "There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from those of every other people's, and they do not observe the king's laws; therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them." (Esther 3:8.)

But as I read the news of the day and take stock of the alarming headlines and articles, I ponder another passage from the Scroll of Esther, for it contains the key to survival during difficult times.

This other phrase is the antidote to fear and hopelessness. It might even be said to contain the secret to the survival of the Jewish People.

As Mordechai and Esther consulted on their options to overthrow Haman's plan, the brave, beautiful (and secretly Jewish) Queen suffered a sudden loss of nerve. Sensing her hesitation, Mordechai shores her up by stating, in Chapter 4, "Who knows whether it is for this very moment that you arrived in the Kingdom?"

Overcome by her despair at the plot against her people and doubts as to whether her plan will work -- coupled with the dreadful knowledge that her husband does not even know that she is a Jew -- Esther is about to jump ship. However, with those powerfully inspiring words, "Who knows whether it is for this very moment that you arrived in the Kingdom?" Mordechai reminds Esther that she has the power to shape her destiny as well as that of her people. He talks her out of the terror one feels in the face of enormous adversity. He explains that she is not alone but in partnership with a higher power, imbued with a grand mission.

We are living in terrifying times but Purim is on the horizon and that means that we will gather to read and relive the story of Mordechai, Esther and the Jews of Shushan and their trajectory from ruin to redemption. We will drown out the name of Haman, he who sought to destroy us. We will celebrate our survival with music, dancing, merriment and delicious food.

In the spirit of the holiday, we will don costumes and masks, exploring other identities, hiding ourselves in order to discover ourselves.

This Purim, the most important mask we can wear is the likeness of Esther, she who put on a mask of bravery when she was afraid, who acted according to the belief that she was present at a particular moment in time in order to bring about redemption, who refused to let hate and destruction prevail.