Usually, I love Purim. I cherish that Jewish tradition promotes a day, just one, to undermine its whole system of laws, where we are compelled to cross-dress, to give endless charity, to drink until one knows not the difference between “blessed is Mordechai and cursed is Haman,” good and evil.
But, a teacher of mine recently posed the following query that has given me pause especially given the current political climate: why should we drink until we can’t tell the difference between good and evil when there is actual evil in the world? The psalmist declares that lovers of God must hate evil. What are we to do in a country that feels as if it’s living a Purim nightmare?
True – racism, sexism, Anti-Semitism, xenophobia, Islamophobia – these have always been part of our American fabric, but it’s also true that since the current president’s rise to power, these ugly parts of our human selves have been magnified and given more of a microphone.
As the Hebrew month of Adar drew near, I began to revisit the Purim story — and it’s more poignant than ever.
“In the days of Ahasuerus,” is how the Biblical tale begins, telling of a bombastic leader who is easily offended, whose empire spans from Persia to Ethiopia, who loves merriment, gluttonous feasts and pageants. When his wife Vashti refuses to comply with his immediate invitation and demand, his advisors egg him to banish her, which he does. Ahasuerus is rash and ill-tempered.
Our current United States president owned the Miss Universe Organization, including Miss USA and Miss Teen USA, from South America to Europe. And how does the president react to those political opponents or journalists who dare question him?
Haman, Ahaseuerus’ royal advisor, has a disdain for those “renegade” Jews. When he encourages the king to establish a day, which would eradicate them from his entire empire, the king hastily complies without thinking through the political implications. Is it too farfetched to draw parallels to the president’s administration releasing a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day that doesn’t mention Jews or Jewish persecution?
Ahasuerus decrees with the “seal of the king,” issuing executive orders and announcements one after the other. When one decree undermines a second one, the king insists he cannot simply retract a statement, for it has the “seal of the king.” When a court refuses to implement the president’s executive order, he can’t revisit his initial policy. He just makes another damning decree, this time jeopardizing millions of immigrants.
Mordechai? Esther? A hopeful spectator might see the president’s daughter and son-in-law in this redemptive light. And who knows, maybe Ivanka’s tweet on the ongoing bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers did indeed spark her father’s first tweet denouncing Anti-Semitism. Time will tell if her voice can emerge as one of reason and nuance in her father’s inner circle.
What then can we celebrate on Purim if the topsy-turvy has already been overturned?
Perhaps the picture that stands out most to me from the Purim tale is when Haman walks through the courtyard and demands all bow down to him. Mordechai refuses. Jews don’t bow down to human beings.
“What we are concerned about,” Jake Turx, a Hasidic reporter said to the president, “is an uptick in Anti-Semitism and how the government is planning to take care of it. There’s been a report that 48 bomb threats have been made against Jewish centers all across the country in the last couple of weeks. There are people committing Anti-Semitic acts or threatening to—”
“Sit down,” the president soon replied, “Quiet, quiet, quiet,” he hushed the room.
Well, Mr. President, Jews don’t keep quiet and we certainly won’t sit down. Our groggers, noise-makers, will be louder, our feasts greater, our gifts more loving and our passion to live in a just world more emboldened. We will read the Purim story as we have for years and we will note that miracles still do happen, “in days of old and in today’s time” as our holiday liturgy asserts.
This Purim, let’s donate our matanot l’evyonim, holiday gifts to the poor, to organizations that work with at risk immigrant communities and refugees. This Purim, let’s make mishloach manot, holiday gifts to one another, and make sure to give to our Muslim neighbors. This Purim, when we celebrate and raise our glasses, let’s reaffirm our commitment to the most vulnerable among us.
While we cannot escape our Purim alternative-fact/reality universe, we can be engaged citizens. As Mordechai tells Esther in the Purim tale: who knows, perhaps it was this very moment that we were called to act?