Rabbi and Rebbetzen, Mummy and Daddy, family and friends, Shabbat Shalom.
In preparation for today I have been learning about the festival of Purim that we are going to be celebrating next week. Although I knew the storyline of the Megilla already, I have learnt to see the whole story in a different light by looking at the historical backdrop and thinking about the real challenges that the Jewish People faced. For the next few minutes I would like to share some of these ideas with you.
As the joke goes, Purim – like most of our festivals – can be summarised in 9 words; they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat. Until this year, I had learnt the Purim story to be one about a king and his queens, good versus evil. Haman wanted to kill the Jews and our heroes – Mordechai and Esther – saved the day. As a result we celebrate, as we did back in Shushan, with a feast, hearing the Megilla, giving gifts to each other and charity to the poor.
The events of Purim took place over 2370 years ago. The first Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar. The Bnei Yisrael had been exiled and dispersed all over the Middle East. Even Haman comments that we were spread all throughout the 127 provinces over which King Achashverosh ruled.
As time went on, different groups of Jews had different reactions – some became less connected to their culture, and others set up incredible centres of Jewish learning in Babylon. Early on, the prophet Jeremiah had prophesised that we would return to our homeland within 70 years.
This prophecy was well known and well respected, and influenced everyone – including King Achashverosh, as we will see.
The Purim story begins towards the end of the exile. It begins with a huge feast – a 180-day long party, to be precise. The party was hosted by King Achashverosh as he had calculated that the 70-years were over. He was celebrating the fact that as we were still in exile, he thought the prophecy was wrong. He assumed that we would never return to Israel and the Temple would never be rebuilt.
To rub salt into the wound for us, and to demonstrate his triumph over the Jews, he used the holy gold and silver vessels from the destroyed Temple at the feast. Everyone was invited – Jews included – and all the food and wine was kosher to accommodate us. What would you have done with your invitation if you had been there at the time? Would you have gone, simply because the king invited you and it seemed like the right thing to do, given that you were a guest in his land? Or would you have refused to attend on principle, knowing that the party was celebrating your national destruction? I’ll let you think about your answer, and we will come back to it in a little while.
Let’s move across to the villain – the evil Haman. We all know that Haman hated the Jews, but let’s look at his motivation. His only justification that we see in the Megilla is that the Jews are spread out throughout the 127 provinces. On the one hand we might read that to be a criticism that the Jews were everywhere and permeating Persian society in a negative way. On the other hand, his words could – and should - have been heard as a warning to us that we were too spread out and were not living as a tight, solid community.
Being so divided left us more vulnerable to physical attack and a weakening of our communal spirituality as we were too spread out to support each other.
Either way, being spread out was merely an excuse – not a reason – for Haman’s hatred. Furthermore, Haman was the Prime Minister. He was second in command only to the king himself. Yet the fact that one solitary Jew – Mordechai – refused to bow down to him sent Haman into such a rage that he vowed to kill all the Jewish People. It’s totally irrational that a man of such power should be so affected by the sentiments of one single Jew in his entire, vast kingdom.
It doesn’t make sense. Haman hated the Jews simply because he was anti-Semitic, and the slightest snub turned his flame of hatred into a burning rage. There was no reason why he hated us – he just hated us for being Jewish and wanted to wipe us out because of it. Sadly he was not the first or the last in history to feel that way…
As we know, Mordechai found out about Haman’s plans and persuaded Esther to speak to the king and stop the massacre. Esther reluctantly agrees to speak to the king, and tells Mordechai to instruct the Jews to fast and pray on her behalf.
Why did she do that? And why did Mordechai agree? They had the upper hand – they knew what was going to happen ahead of time. They had a strategic advantage.
• Why didn’t they warn the Jews that they were about to be killed and instruct them to form an army and launch a pre-emptive strike and kill the Persians first?
Or to run away?
Or to prepare weapons to fight back when they were attacked?
There was a physical threat on our lives. Why didn’t Mordechai and Esther choose a physical response?
Why did they choose a spiritual one?
Let’s go back to the king’s feast… What did you decide? Would you have gone? Most of the Jews in the Persian Empire did. For most of them, their connection to their Jewish heritage and homeland had faded in almost 70 years. Their faith and practise had weakened.
Mordechai and Esther knew that the reason we were at such risk was because we were spiritually weak. Fasting and prayer are ways of repentance – of recognising our spiritual distance from Hashem and trying to go back and strengthen our connection.
Mordechai and Esther knew that this was actually a spiritual issue, and there was no way that we could physically fight Haman if we were not connected to each other and to Hashem.
They challenged every Jew to ask themselves – you are about to die for being Jewish; are you truly living as a Jew while you have the chance? This really hits the core of the problem within the Jewish People at the time, and it poses questions I feel we should all ask ourselves every day:
Do we live every day in a way that demonstrates our feelings towards our religion?
If we were at risk of dying because of our faith, would we feel proud of the way we had lived as Jews until that point?
If there was a chance that we would no longer be allowed to practise Judaism, how hard would we fight back to stop that happening? And if we won that war, how would we change our attitude and behaviour as a result?
How much does our Judaism mean to us?
Do we enjoy being Jewish?
Whilst we each think of our own answers to these questions, let’s look at what happened in the Megilla. As we know, the story ends happily and we stand here today to tell the tale. Right at the end of the Megilla there is an interesting phrase. It says “kimu v’kiblu ha-Yehudim aleyhem…” – the Jews accepted and undertook upon themselves… But it doesn’t say what we accepted! It’s also a strange phrase as it uses two words – kimu and v’kiblu, accepted and undertook – where one would have been enough. Why do we need the double language of accepting and undertaking? What does it all mean?
The Gemara – Talmud – in Tractate Shabbat says that this is referring to accepting the Torah. When we accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, we did it out of fear. The Gemara says that Hashem held the mountain over our heads and told us that if we didn’t accept the Torah, we would have gone to our graves. I don’t think we can take this literally, but it’s a scary metaphor. We had never had the Torah before and we were in awe of Hashem and we just knew that there was no choice but to do what He said. In the Purim story, we had lost our connection to Torah and our lives became at risk as a result.
We were challenged to ask ourselves what our Judaism really meant to us and if we were prepared to die for it and lose it forever. We realised then that we loved the Torah and committed to reaffirm our connection to it.
That’s what this is referring to, and that’s why the language is doubled – because we came back and reconnected to something we had previously committed to. The difference was that the first time was a commitment based on fear and awe; this times it was based on pure and genuine love.
Today I become a Bat Mitzva. From today I have to decide what my Judaism means to me. Until now, I have lived my Jewish life through my parents. I have learnt from them and have done what they said because that’s what a child does. Becoming Bat Mitzva does not mean that I don’t need to continue to listen and learn, but it does mean that I have to take responsibility for my mitzva observance. I have to decide how I feel about being Jewish and be prepared to take the consequences – good or otherwise – for my choices.
I try to do the right thing already, even if it’s hard. I keep kosher even though I go to a non-Jewish school and spend time with friends who eat non-kosher food that I wish I could have, but I know I can’t. I try to come to shul often, even though I find prayer a challenge. From today, I want to try harder to practise my Judaism, improve my Hebrew reading skills and concentrate more in shul. I want to try to always remember what Hashem wants from me and to do the right thing. Today is my personal Purim – I want to accept the Torah and mitzvot out of love. I hope that as I move forward and grow into a Jewish adult that I will make my family, friends and community proud of me.