PURIM: The Antisemitism Holiday by Rabbi Henry Jay Karp Temple Emanuel Davenport, Iowa February 19, 2010
Next weekend will be a raucous one, both here at Temple Emanuel and at the Tri City Jewish Center. For next Friday night we will hold our annual Purim service, replete with people in all sorts of strange costumes, the reading of the Megillah, and of course, our Noisiest Grogger Contest, as children and adults alike vie for the honor of most effectively drowning out the name of Haman whenever it is men-tioned. Come Sunday, the revelry and chaos will be transferred over to the Tri City Jewish Center, as our children delight in our annual Purim Carnival. All in all, things will be wild, and both buildings will be rocking.
Purim is a holiday of total abandonment to joy. And such abandonment was never intended to be limited to just the children. Adults, too, are supposed to surrender to it. I know that there are times when we adults can become too self-conscious or just too darn stuffy to let ourselves go in the spirit of Purim, but that is our shortcoming and not the shortcoming of the holiday.
Last year, at our Purim service, we had a family of adults who attended, all in costume, and it was obvi-ous from their behaviors that before coming to Temple, they had liberally partaken of the fruit of the vine, or perhaps liquids somewhat stronger. They had a great time! After the service, there were those who commented about how inappropriate was their behavior. However, those who made those remarks to me were surprised, and perhaps disturbed, by the response they received. For rather than affirming their outrage, I told them, “No. Not at all! For these were the adults who, more than any others, had truly captured the spirit of the holiday.” What? Drunkenness in the sanctuary is appropriate behavior? Not on Yom Kippur, and not even on Shabbat. But on Purim - you betcha! For even the Talmud instructs us that when it comes to Purim, Jews are commanded to drink so much that they can no longer discern the difference between blessing Mordecai and cursing Haman. In fact, there is a Purim tradition for adults - not for children but for adults - which is derived from that mitzvah, and whose very name comes from the text of the mitzvah. It is called a Adloyadah and it is an adult drinking party. The name Adloyadah literally means “until you do not know.” Purim is indeed our party holiday!
But why all the extreme celebration? After all, while the story of Mordecai and Esther, Haman and Ahashuerus is an interesting one, it would not appear to be that significant. Let’s face it! It’s not Pass-over, with the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea, and the liberation of our people from Egyp-tian slavery. So what is this excessive joy all about?
You see, while the celebration of Purim centers upon merriment, the reason for the celebration of Purim actually centers upon the most painful and tragic challenge which has confronted our people, not just at the time and in the setting of the Purim story, but in practically every time and every setting throughout the history of our people. I am talking about antisemitism; that seemingly eternal hatred of Jews merely because we are Jews, coupled with the desire to do away with, if not all of us, as many of us as possible. Haman, the villain of the Purim story was a consummate antisemite. His plan for the Jews of Persia was nothing short of genocide. Indeed, this might have been the first attempted genocide in human history.
Unfortunately, in our own day and age, history has impelled us to memorialize another attempted geno-cide; the Holocaust. Yet our Holocaust remembrance is most certainly a somber affair. We recall both atrocities and instances of heroism. We weep in our hearts, if not actually with our eyes, for all its vic-tims so brutally slain. We are nonplused by the evil of the evil doers and we, with grim resolve, vow “Never again!” There is no merriment attached to Yom HaShoah; no noisemakers drowning out the name of Hitler whenever it is mentioned. There is nothing lighthearted about it.
So if Purim is all about antisemitism and attempted genocide, why is it so merry? The merriment of Purim is based, not so much upon the attempted genocide itself, but rather upon the defeat of the geno-cidal plan; the victory of the Jewish people over antisemitism. For while Haman plotted our destruction, unlike Hitler, Haman never succeeded in killing one single Jew. Gratefully, when it comes to Purim, we have no Jews for whom to mourn. Thanks to Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai - true Jewish heroes - the implications of Haman’s hatred were not underestimated, but were effectively confronted before any harm could be done. And that is a true cause for celebration. The confronting of antisemitism - the confronting of hatred and bigotry - and stopping it in its tracks before it can take root - before it can draw blood - is a true cause for celebration.
There is much which the Purim story can teach us in our own day and age about both the nature of anti-semitism and how to respond to it. We make a serious mistake if we choose to believe that this story is just about the past. It is about the present as well. So what can we learn from it?
First of all, we should learn that while a certain amount of assimilation into the general society may serve us well, we are foolish to believe that assimilation itself is the answer to antisemitism. The Jews had a good life in Persia. By most of their neighbors, they seem to have been completely accepted. How much more assimilated can a Jew become than Esther? She married the king. She lived in the royal palace. Yet even in a society where most people, including the king, seem to be comfortable with living side by side with Jews, still there are those who will be fueled by their hatred of us. Indeed, they will hate us all the more for trying to fit in. Even though they may be on the fringe of society, they still pose a real danger. They pose a real danger because they always have the potential of locking on to an issue which gains them an audience of otherwise tolerant people.
Did we ourselves not experience this for several years, with a personality no less than Bill O’Reilly, on the Fox network, ranting and railing about the so-called “War on Christmas”? Suddenly, he had a sur-prising number of our fellow Americans believing that Jews, and other religious minorities, but especially we Jews, were dead set on denying our Christian neighbors their sacred holiday. Why? Simply because we preferred such inclusive statements as “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” to the Christian-only sentiment of “Merry Christmas.”
While being at one with the general society can never be the complete answer to antisemitism, it most certainly can be part of the solution. We must remember that Mordecai was not just a good Jew. He was a good Persian. Remember that it was Mordecai who uncovered the plot to assassinate King Ahashuerus. He literally saved the king’s life, and for that he was rewarded, much to Haman’s chagrin. But more than the reward he received at the time, it was his actions and his proven loyalty, as well as the love and loyalty of Queen Esther, which sowed the seeds for Haman’s undoing. If Jews are to have any hope of safety in a society, then they must prove themselves, time and again, to be good citizens who contribute to well being of all.
Purim also teaches us that we must take the threats of antisemites seriously. When Mordecai reported to Queen Esther Haman’s dark plot against our people, it would have been easy for her, in the safety of
the royal palace, to tell him that he was blowing the situation way out of proportion; that it was inconceivable that Haman could ever achieve his goal. Yet she did choose to take this threat seriously; so much so that she went to great personal risk to confront and subdue it. As a result, our people were saved.
Historically speaking, it was not that long ago that another Haman - Hitler - was making similar threats against our people. For too long a time, Jews and non-Jews alike refused to believe in his sincerity. They refused to believe that he would ever carry them out. Yet he did, and we know the results.
Today, in Iran, there is yet another Haman, making similar threats - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has been seriously pursuing the production of nuclear weapons, coupled with unabashedly announcing his goal of using those weapons for the total elimination of the State of Israel. He has proudly proclaims that “Israel must be wiped off the map!” If we have learned anything from the Purim story - from the actions and the courage of Mordecai and Esther - then it is that it is imperative to take seriously those who make such threats, and to act according so as to insure that such plots never come to fruition.
Mordecai and Esther took Haman’s threats seriously, and they nipped his genocidal plan in the bud, and therefore we celebrate at Purim. On the other hand, far too many refused to take Hitler’s threats seriously until it was too late, and therefore we mourn on Yom HaShoah. Today, there are those, like Ahmadinejad, and Hamas, and Hezbollah, and a frightening number of Neo-Nazi hate groups, who con-tinue in the tradition of Haman, threatening to extinguish the existence of the Jewish people. To such threats, Purim challenges us to respond in the manner of Mordecai and Esther, for the future of our peo-ple is in our hands. In the years to come, will the nature of our response to such antisemitism give rise to another Purim celebration or another Yom HaShoah memorial?
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