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For Such a Time As This: Purim in the 21st Century

Posted on February 12, 2018 by Rabbi Andrea Goldstein

Painting: Purim (Feast of Esther) by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800–1882) from the Jewish Museum in New York City.

This week we begin the Hebrew month of Adar – a month in which we are traditionally told, “Be happy. It’s Adar.”

Adar has been deemed Judaism’s Happiness Month because of its connection to the festival of Purim. I have found that for most people, Purim is a story connected to childhood. We remember it as a story of unambiguous good versus evil with one-dimensional characters. Haman is the ultimate villain, King Ahashueros is the fool, Mordechai is the righteous hero and Esther is a paragon of virtue and beauty.

Painting: Esther and Mordechai writing the second letter of Purim by Arent de Gelder (1645-1727) from RISD Museum of Art, Rhode Island.

As children, we were captivated by these characters. We tried on their costumes and imagined ourselves as absolutely courageous or cowardly, beautiful or ugly, good or bad. But if we take a closer look at the megillah, we find a much more complex and realistic tale.

Book of Esther, written on a scroll (megillah), to be read on the festival of Purim. Parchment, from Alsace, 18th century. Now in the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam.

First, the Book of Esther is the only book in the Hebrew Bible that does not mention the name of God. In the land of Shushan, there are no splitting seas, no plagues, no pillars of clouds or fire to lead the people on their journeys. Esther, Mordechai, Haman, Vashti and the King are on their own, so to speak, making choices and decisions with only their morals (or lack of morals) to guide them. Much like us, the characters in the Purim story can only discern God’s presence through their own actions.

The setting of the Purim tale is also not so different from the society we find ourselves in today – one that is obsessed with beauty and wealth, power and greed, violence and sex. Shushan is a country where fear of “the other” is legislated, where anti-Semitism is allowed to run wild. Reading the Purim story today, our minds can easily flash to images of Charlottesville or Poland and – of course – to the #metoo movement.

Questions arise like:

  • What do Vashti and Esther have to do in order to achieve or maintain their positions of power?
  • How does Jewish tradition view the choices they make, and how does our tradition play into or rebel against stereotypes of women?
  • How do the men in the story use (and abuse) the women in their lives? How do the women use the men?
  • How do the powerless fight for their survival?

If you are interested in exploring these ideas further, join Rabbi Goldstein on Wednesday, February 21, at 7:30 p.m. for #MeToo, a MakomSTL class that is free and open to the public.

And don’t forget to join us for a Purim shpiel unlike any other on Wednesday, February 28, at 7 p.m.

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