The Story of Purim

By Samantha Hulkower - in memory of my grandmother Rochel bat Mordechai who passed away on Purim in 5770

A girl wearing a mask for Purim in Jerusalem. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Tonight March 11th and tomorrow March 12th (tomorrow night and after tomorrow in Jerusalem) marks the holiday of Purim. Most people are familiar with the characters of the evil Haman; the delicious triangle-shaped hamentaschen cookies; the lovely Queen Esther. Part of what makes the story so moving is that there are so many ways to connect to it. There are two running themes in the story that are more meaningful when we hear them as adults, than as children. The first is that things may not be as they seem, and the second is when you are insecure and unhappy with who you are, nothing will satisfy you and make you feel better.

The story begins roughly 3,000 years ago with the Jews of Shushan, Persia, who are despondent that their exile from Israel hasn't ended yet. They were only supposed to be in exile 70 years, but the second Beit Hamikdash has not yet been rebuilt, and most of them remain scattered throughout the East. Feeling hopeless that they will never again return home, they despondently attend the party thrown by King Achashverosh in their hometown. The party they attended marks the ends of a half-year long celebration of his ascent to power. What we don't appreciate when we are young is that the vessels used for his extravagant celebration are none other than the cups and other utensils that were used in the Beit Hamikdash. How painful must it have been for the Jews of Shushan to feel that they have no other choice but to join in on a celebration that is in part trampling the fact that their holy Temple is still destroyed - and with the King wearing the Kohen Gadol's own clothing!

It was at this fateful party however, that the miracle of Purim begins. It was all because Achashverosh wanted to show off how powerful  he was, that he had the most beautiful woman in the kingdom at his beck and call, Queen Vashti. This was really more than showing off how attractive his wife was - Vashti was the queen by birth, while Achashverosh was the king through conquest. He was still insecure about his place in the royal family, and wanted to show his guests, and also likely himself, that the queen submits to his rule. When Vashti refused his summons the king was at a loss what to do. He couldn't just let her get away with refusing a demand of the king - could he? Enter Haman (boo!). Haman also had his sights set on the throne. He was once a poor stable boy, who through his cunning worked his way up to advisor to the king. You would think that he would be proud of  his achievements, but nope! Like the king, Haman was also insecure about his background and needed to prove himself. Because there was one Jew, Mordechai who was also the elder of the Jewish community of Shushan, who would not bow to Haman when he walked past, Haman developed a blind hatred for all Jews and a determination to kill them all. Haman was determined to use his position as right hand man to the King in order to kill all Jews. And he was successful - the king signed a decree that in one year's time all 127 countries in his empire could kill their Jews.

Before you worry too much about the fate of the Jews, let us return to our other theme, that things aren't always as they seem. Since the king got into that fight with Vashti, he decided to kill her and start over with a search for a new Queen. The search lasted for a few years and culminated with Achashverosh picking Esther to be his queen. Esther happened to be the daughter (or wife, depending on the source) of Mordechai. So, when the decree went into effect, there was already the seeds planted for the Jew's ultimate salvation. As upset as Esther was to be taken from Mordechai and the Jewish people, she used her position to encourage the king to repeal the decree. Esther was able to see that Haman's power-hungry ways and the king's insecurity about his position could be used to her advantage. She arranged a party for the king and Haman - and then used the king's suspicion that Haman was after his position (including his queen) to convince Achashverosh to annul Haman's decree (and annul Haman's life). We learn here that when we are constantly insecure about ourselves, nothing will ever be enough to make us happy, and could eventually lead to us losing anything we've gained.

As for the second theme, often in our lives things seem hopeless (they don't get much more hopeless than what the Jews of Shushan endured between the party and the decree), but the story of Purim teaches us not to fret! G-d always has a plan, there is alway something in motion, often that we have  no idea about until after our salvation. It's only with hindsight, if we are lucky, that we can see that we never had any reason to fear in the first place. This Purim, we should all enjoy ourselves, and be secure in the knowledge that even though we might have things in our lives that seem stressful (searching for a spouse, a job, etc.) we don't know what G-d is doing behind the scenes. We should relax and know that at the end of the day, the King of the Universe is taking care of us.
Happy Purim!!

No comments:

Yashar LaChayal

The majesty of the Western Wall

Nefesh B'Nefesh