Purim: a Diaspora Holiday

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In just over a week we’ll be listening to the story of Queen Esther read from Megillat Esther (the scroll of Esther). A lot has been written about this story and the holiday that celebrates the miracle behind the story; one thing that strikes me is the relevance of this narrative.

When Haman is appointed Prime Minister by King Ahasuerus, he expects everybody to show him respect and deference and feels slighted when Mordechai refuses to bow to him. In a pure reflex of anti-semitism, he decides that not only Mordechai but all the Jews of Persia must perish as a result. In addition, king Ahasuerus, who apparently had nothing against the Jews, does not challenge his minister and is ready to stand indifferent while the Jews of his kingdom are being slain. Unfortunately history has repeated itself countess times since then. Jews have been threatened and killed while their neighbours have stood silent.

The brighter aspect of this story is that redemption comes from the apparently assimilated Queen Esther herself. After all she had married king Ahasuerus – a Gentile – to whom she had not disclosed her true identity. What’s more the circumstances which had led to the match – she had found favor in the king’s eyes in a sort of beauty contest – were not exactly those we associate with religious young girls.

Although marrried to an allpowerful king and hesitant when Mordechai tells her that she is the one who must take action to save her people, she identifies with the Jews of Persia and finds in herself the resources to counter Haman’s decree.

What the story of Esther teaches us here is that sometimes God needs us to perform miracles and that he expects us to exert our sense of responsibility to change things. It also reminds us that we should be careful when judging other people and that redemption may come through those assimilated Jews we tend to write off as “not Jewish enough”.