The word purim means “lots” — as in lots drawn in games of chance — and in the Purim story it is by lot that the time of the Jews’ demise is decided. Despite their contributions to government and to society, the assimilated Jews of the ancient Persian court occasionally suffered the wrath of their governors. In the Purim story they are threatened with extermination. The mighty arm of God, so helpful in the past, is conspicuously absent here; in fact, God is never mentioned once in the entire Megillah. It’s guile that gets the job done. The story is high on surface and low on symbol and, as such, it suffers from its place in the biblical canon. Had it come down to us as secular writing, we’d be able to read it without reverence and to say, “Look, the Jews were writing B-movie scripts way back then.”
But since it does stand within the canon, one is obliged to puzzle over the meaning of Purim. Is it a sacred lesson of self-determination? Or is it a biblical burlesque about the powerless turning the tables on the powerful — a Jewish Feast of Fools, a day when the world is turned upside down and all the rules are void, when one can take on the guise of someone else, even one’s enemy? What about the morals of the story? Are they as bleak as they seem? Our heroine, the virgin Esther, charms her way to the top, marries a goy (albeit a goyish king) and lives happily ever after. Mind you, she manages to save her people along the way, but is this what it takes? One has to admit it worked quite well: In the end, the Jews are saved and their enemies are slaughtered wholesale, Esther becomes queen, and Mordecai, her cousin and guardian who put her up to it all, becomes prime minister.
In and of itself, the Purim story is not terribly revelatory — the story is what it is. What is significant is Purim’s place in the calendar, its context in Jewish time. The key to Purim is to be found in the Sabbath that precedes it: Shabbat Zakhor, the “Sabbath of Remembrance,” one of the four special Sabbaths known as the Four Portions. Shabbat Zakhor is among the most challenging days of the Jewish year. A special section from the Torah, Deuteronomy 25:17–19, is read because the villain of its story, Amalek, is said to be an ancestor of Purim’s villain, Haman. The portion refers to an earlier event, recorded in Exodus 17:8–16, in which the newly freed Israelites were attacked by the Amalekites. They were the first attackers, establishing themselves as ur-enemies. Though they were dispatched handily, a nasty remnant survived and their bad reputation lived on. What made the Amalekites so deplorable were whom and how they attacked: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out from Egypt, how he met you on the way when you were weary and faint and attacked you from the rear…. When the Lord your God gives you rest from your enemies that surround you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving to you as an inheritance, you are to blot out the name of Amalek from under the heavens. You are not to forget!”
They didn’t forget. The haftara for Shabbat Zakhor, 1 Samuel 15:1–34, continues the encounter. Samuel anoints Saul as Israel’s first king and instructs him to fulfill God’s commandment to wipe out the Amalekites — men, women, children, babes in arms, livestock and all. Saul bungles the job: Only the Amalekite men are slain; their king, Agag, is taken captive, and the livestock is taken by the army as spoils. In the Purim story, Haman is described as a descendant of Agag, himself a descendant of the original Amalek, who, in Genesis 36:12, is mentioned as a grandson of Esau. In the course of centuries between the writing of Genesis
and the later prophets Obadiah and Malachi, Esau had gone from being the big, bumbling twin brother of Jacob to the wicked and bloodthirsty root of much evil. Between the Amalek episode in Exodus and the one in 1 Samuel, more than 400 years pass. Could there be no redemption for the Amalekites, no peace with them? Or is the fight with Amalek something much older, an eternal blood feud between Jacob and Esau? The Bible shows that peace is possible: By the time of Solomon’s reign, accords of coexistence had been reached with a number of former enemies. King Hiram of Tyre, whose people were on an enemies list in Psalm 83, was a major contractor on the building of the Temple and, it seems, a happy neighbor in general.
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Zakhor is the imperative “Remember!” — a word rife with significance in Judaism. There are six things in the Torah we are commanded by God to remember: the Exodus, the revelation of the Law at Mount Sinai, the evil of Amalek, the Israelites’ struggle in the wilderness, the punishment of Miriam and the keeping of the Sabbath. Three of these remembrances are enshrined as pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. The keeping of the Sabbath is the principal regulator of Jewish life. The memory of God’s punishment of Miriam is usually interpreted as a cautionary tale. But how is it that the Amalekites rate and something like the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, does not? Perhaps it’s God’s way of saying that keeping an eye on enemies is essential for survival. If that is indeed the case, then Shabbat Zakhor might well be our “Enemies Day.” It is a tough day, to be sure — bad enough to make you want to pack your tallit and run. It must be said, though, that there’s something cathartic about a yearly confrontation with one’s foes, a confrontation that allows us to move on and be thankful for our survival and success despite all the vicious attacks and tragic losses.
Our relief from the bad memories comes in the form of Purim, which is the obverse of Shabbat Zakhor, the flip side of this coin of bitterness, when, according to the Talmud, “One is obligated to drink… until one cannot tell the difference between [the hymns] ‘Blessed Be Mordecai’ and ‘Cursed Be Haman.’” In costumes and in Purim shpieln (the little theatricals performed on Purim), one engages in a kind of remembrance so deep that one inhabits the very personae of one’s enemies. How better to confront them? On Shabbat Zakhor, there is the bitter remembrance of Amalek and his many incarnations, whereas on Purim, Amalek becomes no more than the progenitor of imbeciles, his descendant, Haman, an overreaching loser.
The Purim shpieln are the invincible weapons by which the enemies are defeated, beaten so soundly that we can forget them — at least until next year. The Purim shpiel, though just a custom, has all the power that the Jewish people have invested in it — a power no less than zakhor! — or, one might say, a power of forgetting so great that it allows remembrance to become something curative rather than crushing. Such is the genius of the Jewish calendar and its customs. There have been Purim shpieln to suit all times, needs and enemies: Haman has been envisioned as various cruel popes and sundry tsars, a cavalcade of crusaders, grand (and not-so-grand) inquisitors. My father remembers a Purim shpiel from his youth in the late 1920s when the notoriously antisemitic Henry Ford was the day’s Haman. And the tradition lives on, as does our need for such a day. Without Purim — and without the mandate to forget, if only for a day — the remembrance of so much suffering might be too much to bear.