The celebration of Purim has four commandments: Read the story of Esther. Give gifts of food to friends. Give gifts of money to those who need it. Celebrate by eating. The story seems simple, but it really isn’t. There are a lot of adult themes contained within the story that are not covered at all when discussing the story with children. As adults, we know what the “beauty pageant” was really about. I will tell you that most teens who wanted to be Esther in the past decide against dressing like her once they find out what was really going on.
The story of Esther contains a number of antisemitic components. We have the passive antisemite in the figure of the King – who can’t be bothered to double check anything his advisors tell him, and has the power to destroy an entire people based on hearsay evidence. We have the hopeful antisemites who have no power to do anything, but are hopeful that something bad will happen to at least some Jews. These are the officers who asked Mordechai why he did not bow down to Haman, and wanted to make sure that Haman knew Mordechai was not bowing down to him since Mordechai had told them that he was Jewish. There is the active antisemite with power, who decided that if one person was acting a certain way he did not like, then the entire people were worthy of destruction.
It is somewhat hard to know what the average person in the King’s empire thought about the Jews. Part of what makes it difficult is that the first royal proclamation concerning the Jews let people attack them and take their property without any fear of reprisal or self-defense by the Jews. The second proclamation gave the Jews the right to defend themselves – so did those who attacked the Jews do so because they hated Jews or they just wanted more stuff? Were there people who refrained from attacking the Jews once they were given the right to self-defense? The text has nothing to say about this.
What other traditions do many Jews follow on Purim? One of them is the Purim Shpiel – a retelling of the story in another fashion (like telling the story through using Beatle’s songs, or as a Mission Impossible narrative). I personally have written many song parodies which I use, as well as an English version of the story that brings it into somewhat modern terminology. Another custom is to boo the villain’s name every time it appears, so you almost do not hear the name at all. A final custom is to dress in costumes – both those relevant to the story and those which have nothing to do with the story.
Like many another celebration in Jewish life, it boils down to “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.”
Rabbi Larry Moldo is past-Chair of the Wyoming Interfaith Network as well as serving Cheyenne’s Mount Sinai Congregation. He is also on the Executive Board of COMEA and a past President of the Cheyenne Interfaith Council.