Ask the rabbi…about Purim

March 22, 2016 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple writes about Purim.

IN PRAISE OF ESTHER

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

The more we delve into the events of the Megillah, the more questions we have. Nothing and no-one in the story is as simple and straightforward as they seem.

In particular, no-one is as interesting as Esther – a humble girl without much yichus who becomes queen of a mighty empire, a pious person who found a way to observe Jewish practices in the palace, an unspoilt woman who is beautiful in herself without the need of cosmetics and touching-up… the stuff of which endless stories can be and are made.

The rabbis say, “Whoever sees Esther in his dreams is sure to see a miracle in his life-time”. They also say, “Why is Esther like the dawn? Because her arrival ushered in a wondrous age”.

The deep question is how and why Esther was selected to bring about such deliverance to the Jews of Persia.

The answer is the tried and tested principle that motivates so many Biblical stories – it was the finger of God moving mysteriously but inexorably to bring about a great result.

In its own way, this notion explains why there is no explicit mention of the Divine name anywhere in the story.

Whether the Almighty works overtly or covertly, whether we recognise His activity or not, the finger of God is in charge.

With some moments in history there are questions as to why it takes so long, but though we may have questions about His timetable, we never lose faith that history is in His hands.

REVENGE & THE PURIM STORY

Q. The Torah warns us against being vengeful (Lev. 19:18). Doesn’t the Purim story contradict this?

A. The Megillah begins with King Achashverosh being annoyed with his wife and removing her from office, but whatever one thinks of his action it isn’t really vengeance but punishment. Likewise, Haman is livid at Mordechai and shows it, but again it isn’t really vengeance but castigation.

Yet what can we say when we see the Jews of Persia wanting to eradicate Haman the descendant of Amalek, apparently taking the Torah literally when it commands the extirpation of the Amalekites because they had sought to destroy Israel (Ex. 17:8-16, Deut. 25:17-19)?

It is possible that Judaism is making a special case of the Amalekites, saying that though vengeance in general is not permitted, the Amalek-spirit is so dangerous that it must be thoroughly wiped out even if it sounds like vengeance.

This conclusion is not just academic, but raises the question of the appropriate attitude towards the perpetrators of the Holocaust. The memorial prayers for the six million martyrs often refer to God avenging the blood of the k’doshim.

Again the message may well be that some enemies are so totally evil that vengeance is justified, though it must be pointed out that the Holocaust memorial prayers do not speak of us as human beings exacting vengeance but God doing it, in line with the Biblical verse, “Li nakam v’shillem” – “Vengeance is Mine and I will repay” (Deut. 32:35).

There seems to be a tension, a tug-of-war, between the two attitudes to vengeance, which is why Yeshayayu Leibowitz regarded this as the most difficult part of the Bible.

ESTHER’S INTERMARRIAGE

Q. How can we think so highly of Queen Esther since she married out?

A. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 74b) discusses the question, offering the views of Abayye and Rava.

Both recognise that there is a problem but defend her on the basis that she did not act willingly or voluntarily but was caught up in a situation she would not have chosen.

It was, however, not a time of religious persecution, and she was not required to sacrifice her life rather than commit this transgression.

THE PURIM JUMP

Q. I heard someone talk about the Purim Jump. What is this?

A. In a dark, unfriendly world, Purim gave many communities a chance to laugh at their situation (and at their tormentors).

A common game was to make effigies of Haman and his sons and burn them as a sign that one day all antisemites would be reduced to dust and ashes. In some places people danced around the fire and jumped over it.

Light-hearted fun, but the Christian neighbours accused the Jews of burning representations of Jesus.

PURIM & YOM KIPPUR

Excitement and colour are the keynotes of Purim. There is nothing austere or restrained about the occasion. The celebration is visible and audible. Masks and noise makers are everywhere.

The contrast with Yom Kippur is palpable. Yet, some people compare the two occasions and read the biblical name “Yom Kippurim” as “Yom K’Purim” – “a day like Purim”.

The idea is almost preposterous. On the one hand there is Yom Kippur where there is spirituality, honesty, truth, quietness and solitude.

On the other hand Purim is a noisy popular carnival which knows nothing of the deeper questions of life and death.

Some years ago there was a public celebration of Purim at Parliament House in Melbourne where an array of politicians wore funny hats and booed Haman, quite lost in all this strange Jewish buffoonery.

How can anyone compare Purim with Yom Kippur?

If you ask me which day I prefer, the answer is “both”. It is fun to have a day to fantasise, when I don’t see the real me, when I can pretend, act and release restraints.

I also, however, need Yom Kippur, which brings me back to reality and shows that I cannot hide from other people, from God, or from myself.

This week on Purim give yourself a day off, but don’t overdo the masks and the music. And don’t forget that Yom Kippur will be there in a few months’ time.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

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