The real story of Purim

February 24, 2015 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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We ask the rabbi to give us the background on Purim…

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. Why do we make such a fuss about Purim when the whole story was a minor episode in the life of a Diaspora community, away from the mainstream of Jewish history?

A. This is the generally accepted interpretation of Purim, but it is quite wrong. The fact is that the real story is far more important than most people realise, and not only is it part of what the questioner calls “the mainstream of Jewish history” but it is actually integrally connected with the land of Israel and even has uncanny modern implications for both Israel and the Diaspora.

Persian political intrigue and personal pique in the palace? That’s just the sideshow. Read the Megillah in conjunction with the Book of Ezra, look at Rashi, and you have the real story.

The first step is to peruse Ezra chapter 4, where you read that when the Jewish exiles returned from Babylonia to rebuild the Temple the “enemies of Judah and Benjamin” offered to help, were rebuffed and then made allegations against the Jews and sought to have the building work stopped. Especially relevant is the verse, “And in the reign of Ahasuerus, at the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem” (Ezra 4:6).

Who wrote the accusation? Rashi (on Esther 9:10), quoting the Seder Olam, says it was the ten sons of Haman. Haman, of Agagite descent, was already known as “the enemy of the Jews”, i.e. of the Judeans, those who had returned to Judea and Jerusalem (Esther 3:10; 8:1; 9:10, 24) and was probably involved in the move to prevent the rebuilding of the Temple.

Mordechai too was not just a nice Persian rabbi; he too is mentioned in Ezra (2:2) and was a leading Jewish exile who had returned to Judea and had been sent to plead the Judeans’ case before Ahasuerus, ruler of a vast empire “from India to Ethiopia” (Esther 1:1).

What was being played out before Ahasuerus in Shushan was the battle of the leaders – Haman and Mordechai – in relation to events in Jerusalem and the future of the Holy Land.

Were the Jews grateful to Mordechai for his efforts? Not all (Esther 10:3); the minority, says Rashi, believed he should not be so involved in politics but get back to his Torah learning.

EVERY RIGHT TO EXPECT MIRACLES

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz regards the festival of Purim as the festival of the Diaspora and the Book of Esther as “the scroll of the Jewish people in its exile”. In the Diaspora the challenges were sometimes physical, sometimes spiritual, and sometimes both. What preserved us was centuries of sheer miracles.

Rabbi Steinsaltz writes, “This book (the Megillah) is the essence of Jewish life in exile, and of the faith that, behind all external causes, hides the ‘guardian of Israel’. The Megillah teaches us that the Jewish people must learn to live this sort of life, expecting miracles… not miracles like the parting of the Red Sea, done ‘by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm’, but rather miracles hidden within the tortuous, winding ways of history.”

It is an inspiring thought, but how does it square with the rabbinic notion, “We do not rely on miracles”?

Perhaps the answer is that we should never consciously place ourselves in a situation of peril, asserting blithely, “Don’t worry; God won’t let us down”. We have to opt for the least risky Jewish environment and exert ourselves to be the best possible Jews we can be, maintaining the faith that God will operate through “the tortuous, winding ways of history” to preserve us and protect His heritage.

It may not always happen in open, obvious and immediate fashion: God has to work in His way, even if it takes longer than we expect.

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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