Purim, the festive day celebrated by Jews around the world this weekend, is a children’s holiday with very adult undertones. Recalling the famous victory recounted in the biblical Book of Esther, in which the Jews of Persia foiled a plot by the wicked viceroy Haman to destroy them, it is celebrated with costumes, noisemakers and unrestrained merriment. So unrestrained that adults are commanded by the Talmud to drink on Purim until they can no longer tell the difference between “blessed is Mordecai,” the Jewish elder who foiled the plot, and “cursed is Haman.”
But the holiday has a somber subtext. Haman, tradition teaches, was a descendant of Amalek, the tribe that harassed the Hebrew slaves escaping from Egypt. The Hebrews were ordered to exterminate Amalek, down to the last woman and child. Haman’s plot is described as payback for the failure to wipe out the tribe thoroughly enough. The Purim story ends with Mordecai’s followers turning the tables on Haman and exterminating him, his family and 70,000 of his followers.
In a month’s time, Jews will gather once again, this time at the Passover table, where they will celebrate their liberation from Egypt. During the Seder they will recite the text, “In each generation they rise up against us to destroy us.”
There are those among us who take those words very literally these days. They see enemies everywhere and friends nowhere. At times, in their overzealousness, they can even turn a friend into an enemy. These are dangerous times to be making such mistakes.
Now is a time to keep our wits about us. This Purim, let’s lift a glass to Mordecai. But let’s be ready the next day to tell the difference between real enemies and imagined ones.