Happy Purim

Happy Purim
Purim is the celebration of Jewish deliverance as told in the Book of Esther. After the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah, the Jews were taken into the seventy-year Babylonian captivity. When ancient Persia took control, Haman, royal vizier to King Ahasuerus, planned to kill the Jews, but his plans were foiled by Esther and he uncle, Mordecai.

Purim takes place each year in the Jewish calendar on the 14th day of Adar. This year the Gregorian date is the 28th of February. Purim is a boisterous, joyful day – it is a celebration of survival. The Purim celebration is fun and jovial.

Purim customs include giving food baskets as gifts, eating hamantashen pastries, giving to charity, and participating in Purim parades, plays and carnivals complete with costumes and noisemakers. Children dress in costume and march in Purim parades around the community. Families bake hamantashen pastries (Haman’s Ears) to eat during the celebration.

Purim is a time of joyous celebration. There is a special atmosphere that surrounds Purim. Probably the most widely observed Purim tradition is masquerading. Wearing masks and costumes is a way of hiding ones true identity. It is a fun way to act out the theme of mistaken identity which is found throughout the story of Esther. Esther hid her cultural origins from the king, Mordecai hid his knowledge of all the world's languages (which allowed Bigthan and Teresh to discuss their plot openly in his presence), and Haman was mistaken for Mordecai when he led Mordecai through the streets of the capital city of Shushan.

However, the most important custom is to listen to the Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther) read aloud. It is a mitzvah (good deed) to do so. This reading usually takes place in a synagogue so to publicly declare the miracles of Purim. In Israel it is also read to the children in the day-cares, kindergartens, and schools. The Book of Esther is called the Megillah and the reading is called kriat Megillah. It is traditional to read the Megillah the eve of Purim as well as the following morning. The Talmud, the written record rabbinic thought pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, customs and history, prescribes how the Megillah should be read. This includes boisterous congregational participation complete with noise-makers called groggers which they spin at the mention of Haman, the villain of the story who is out to destroy the Jews.

On Purim we remember and celebrate the survival of the Jewish People. It is the story of how Esther saved the Jews of Persia from annihilation, as recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther.

Hadassah and Esther

A Story of Heroism

Long ago in the land of Persia there was a king named Ahashverosh. As is the way of kings, one day he ordered that all his advisers and friends come together for a great feast. During the weeks of revelry he called upon his queen Vashti to dance at the feast and demonstrate her beauty for the male attendees. Queen Vashti refused. Furious at her rebuff the king ordered the execution of Vashti.

Over time King Ahashverosh’s anger dissipated and he was lonely for a queen. The new queen was to be the most beautiful in all his lands. To find her the king held a beauty contest. All the most beautiful young women were to be brought before the king. Amongst them was a Jewish women named Hadassah, who is also called Esther.

Esther was an orphan who was raised by her cousin Mordechai, he called her Hadassah means Myrtle, the sweet smelling tree. According to Jewish tradition the Myrtle tree is the most righteous of trees. Mordechai was a very righteous Jew and raised his adopted daughter the same way.

Thus Esther was not a willing participant in the pageant as this was not something a humble woman would do. So while the others readied themselves with perfume and cosmetics, she made no effort at all. But despite Esther’s lack of enthusiasm, God had plans for her. Out of all the women sent before the king, he chose Esther as the winner of the pageant and thus selected her to be his next queen.

When Esther was going to live in the palace Mordechai instructed her not to reveal that she was Jewish. The explained that it could be dangerous if this fact was discovered. She followed this advise and didn’t reveal her true identity, even when the king asked her to do so. To the king she was known only as Esther, a name that means “hiddenness”, as Esther kept her identity hidden.

Meanwhile, the king’s chief adviser, Haman, was trying to increase his influence in the kingdom. Haman convinced the king to decree that everyone must bow down to him when he passed. When Haman passed Mordechai did not bow because as a Jew he bows to no one but God.

Feeling insulted, angry and humiliated by Mordechai’s lack of compliance Haman immediately began to plot against the Jews of Persia. Haman decided to destroy the entire Jewish people in Persia. He went to the king and told them that the Jews didn’t follow the king’s laws. The king trusted Haman and told him he could do with the kingdom’s residents as he liked. Thus Haman set his plan into action and cast lots to determine the day of Jewish annihilation, and then constructed a gallows.

When Haman’s plot was revealed, a distraught Mordechai tore his clothes and wept publicly. Hearing about her cousin’s distress Esther sent a servant to inquire. Mordechai, who always knew her by the name Hadassah, sent the message to appeal to her to do something on behalf of her people. This proposition was unsettling to Esther as she knew what happened to the last queen who crossed the king.

However Esther, being the righteous woman she was, agreed. She instructed Mordechai to organize a three-day fast of the Jewish people. She believed that this fast would help deliver their prayers to God. Mordechai implored her to approach the king dressed humbly as a member of the Jewish faith. However, in this case Esther knew her identity must remain hidden until the proper moment.

After three days of fasting the unrevealed Jewess, Esther, entered the king’s court dressed in her most colorful and ostentatious royal garb. Still enamored by her stunning beauty, the king asked her what she desired, willing to give her anything she wanted. She replied that she only wanted to invite the king and Haman to a banquet. The king immediately accepted.

At the conclusion of the banquet, at which the king has gotten quite drunk with wine, Esther invited the king and Haman to a second banquet the next night. During the second feast with Haman drunk on self-importance and the king drunk on wine Esther made her move. She revealed Haman’s plot to the king explaining that she was in fact Jewish. By going forward with the order Haman would have to kill the king’s beautiful queen as well.

The king was furious that Haman would harm the queen. In his rage he overturned Haman’s decree and ordered that Haman be hanged in the gallows intended for Mordechai and other Jews.

In was here that the hidden Queen Esther and the righteous Hadassah, thus one and the same, yet so opposite, saved the Jews.

Like the heroine of Purim we all have different sides, sometimes opposing, sometimes complimenting. We should embrace all our different elements because it is they way each of us was uniquely made by God. Like Esther... and Hadassah... we can find a way to use each of our sides in His service.

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