There’s a joke among Jews about how so many of our holidays center around the same narrative: they tried to kill us; they failed; we won; let’s eat.
Jewish identity often seems to pivot around these moments of near-extinction. From Pesach (Passover) to Hanukah to Yom HaShoah (Holocaust and Heroes Remembrance Day), the very act of celebrating Jewishness tends to be melancholy. Twenty-first century Jewishness often requires grieving for both our fallen family, and for a world where so many are committed to blind hatred.
Purim, on the other hand, is a celebration clear about its role as an act of defiance.
For those who have never heard the story of the Megillah (which contains the story of Purim) it’s simple: they tried to kill us; they failed; we won; let’s eat.
The story begins with Vashti, the wife of the Persian King Ahasuerus. Vashti refuses her husband’s drunken demands to appear before the court, and is banished for her rebellion. Looking for a new wife, Ahasuerus chooses a Jew named Esther, who marries him without revealing her Jewish identity.
Esther’s cousin Mordecai earns favor with Ahasuerus after he thwarts an attempted assassination — and stirs trouble when he refuses to bow to Haman, Ahasuerus’s viceroy. When Haman finds out that Mordecai didn’t bow because he’s Jewish, Haman vows genocide on the Jews, which Ahasuerus agrees to execute on the thirteenth of the month of Adar.
Mordecai is clearly upset; he asks Esther to convince the king not to go through with the order. But Esther is afraid, as approaching the king without permission is punishable by death. After three days, she approaches the king, who indicates that she will not be punished. Esther invites both he and Haman to a feast, and then subsequently to another feast.
That night, Ahasuerus is reminded of Mordecai’s service to him, and asks Haman how to honor a man who has helped him. Haman thinks that the king is referring to him, and suggests parading the man in the king’s own robes and crown while a herald calls, “See how the King honors a man he wishes to reward!” You can imagine how Haman probably felt when the king instructed Haman to be exactly that herald.
Then, at the second banquet, the king tells Esther that he will give her anything she requests. It is then that she reveals that she is Jewish and asks that her people not be killed. Ahasuerus is overcome by rage; he orders that Haman be hanged on the gallows that Haman had intended for Mordecai. When Ahasuerus signs an order allowing Jews to destroy all those seeking to harm them, Haman’s sons and 500 others are also killed.
It is worth noting that Jews respond to our own near-destruction here by creating a holiday centered around carnivals, costumes, getting blackout drunk, screaming and eating pastries shaped like Haman’s ears. We drown out the sound of even his name, as a way to censor the evil that he attempted.
There are lots of great lessons to take from Purim. For example, feminist scholars such as Harriet Beecher Stowe read Vashti as a feminist icon for disobeying her husband’s orders. Other Jewish interpretations discuss how Esther has a responsibility to protect the Jewish people, even when she herself is not at risk. Meanwhile, there are many who relate the drowning out of Haman’s name to how, even in the modern world, we must not platform hatred.
I believe all of these interpretations. But right now, in the midst of political persecution and healthcare crises, the interpretation that I think is most poignant is the one that instructs us to celebrate in spite of the evil that may lend our lives context — and to share that joy with others intentionally.
Whether you’re Jewish or you’re not, maybe you can take a lesson from Purim: find joy in spite of the bad news, in spite of the fear, and in spite of the anger. Find joy, because the alternative is to let everything else win.
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