Purim Again


Last evening we went to bed learning the horrifying news about massacres at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. This morning we learned 49 dead and 20 injured. No one should ever fear going to their house of worship. Our siddurim (prayer books) contain the following in the prayer for peace, “May we see the day when war and bloodshed cease, when a great peace will embrace the whole world.” We mourn those killed and send our prayers to their families and to those who are injured.

My second favorite holiday of the Jewish year starts next Wednesday evening. Purim (here is a cute short video explaining the story) is a celebration when we dress up in costume, make our hamentashen cookies, give money to at least two poor people (matanot la’evyonim), and deliver mishloach manot (gifts often of food and treats) to friends and family. Some may drink too much (a tradition of the holiday), and we read the Megillat Esther (Book of Esther). Of course, everyone loves to twirl their gragger and make plenty of noise to drown out the name of the evil Haman. My favorite part is when the Megillah reader has to say the names of Haman’s ten sons in one breath.

Sadly, the Purim story has revealed itself again. Haman sets out to destroy the Jews after he becomes incensed by Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to him. When he lobbies King Ahasuerus for a decree that will endorse a genocidal campaign against the Jews, Haman employs the anti-Semitic trope of dual loyalty, saying: “There is a certain people … dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king’s laws” (Esther 3:8). The Jews, Haman asserts, are disloyal to their king because they are loyal to their religion and therefore must be destroyed.

This argument, among others, has been used against the Jews for centuries, and, sadly, most recently by Rep. Ilhan Omar from Minnesota. Omar stated, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country (i.e., Israel).” It relies upon a false claim – that Jews are incapable of devotion to their own country and to their fellow citizens. (Since many have asked, the Jewish Federation did not put out a public statement regarding her comment. We spoke with our colleagues in the Minneapolis Jewish community and they stated it was their role to address Rep. Omar.)

Esther refuses to accept Haman’s argument that she must choose between her country and her people. She does not use her power to secretly thwart the King’s decree; instead, she openly brings her position as queen and her Jewish identity to the banquet table, asking Ahasuerus to save her life and her people and showing him that he was wrong to view the Jews as “the other.” Esther emphasizes that her allegiance to her faith and to her country are not mutually exclusive.

As we fight for the rights of all religious and ethnic groups, let us work towards a future defined not by the darkness of anti-Semitism, hatred, and bigotry, but by the light celebrated at the end of the Megillah.

Here are a few facts you may not have known about Purim (credit to www.myjewishlearning.com):

  1. Esther was a vegetarian (or at least a flexitarian) — According to midrash, Queen Esther followed a vegetarian diet consisting largely of legumes so that she could keep kosher. For this reason, there is a tradition of eating beans and peas on Purim.
  2. The Book of Esther is the only biblical book that does not include God’s name.
  3. In 1945, a group of American GI’s held belated Purim services inside Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels’ confiscated castle — According to JTA coverage at the time, the Jewish chaplain “carefully arranged the candles over a swastika-bedecked bookcase in Goebbels’ main dining room,” and Jewish soldiers explained to the non-Jews in their unit “about Haman and why it was so fitting that Purim services should be held in a castle belonging to Goebbels.”
  4. The Book of Esther may be an adaptation of a Babylonian story – Some scholars suggest that the Book of Esther adapted stories about these pagan gods — Marduk becoming Mordecai and Ishtar transformed to Esther — to reflect the realities of its own Jewish authors in exile.
  5. Some Jewish communities celebrate Purim for two days and others for just one — The story differentiates between Jews who lived and fought their enemies for two days within the walled, capital city of Shushan and those who lived in unwalled towns, where only one day was needed to subdue the enemy. Therefore, if a person lives in a city that has been walled since the days of Joshua (circa 1250 BCE), as Shushan and Jerusalem, Purim is celebrated on the 15th of the month of Adar, a day referred to as “Shushan Purim.” Those who live in unwalled cities (those in the Diaspora) celebrate on the 14th, the day referred to as just “Purim.”

A few announcements:

  • Mazel tov to Fred Rothstein, who recently celebrated 18 years as Executive Director of Congregation Neveh Shalom, on being installed as the president of NAASE – the North American Association of Synagogue Executives. Well deserved!
  • Do not miss TechFest NW on April 4-5 at Portland State University. TechFest NW was founded by Willamette Week publisher, Mark Zusman. The Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, through its Israel Advocacy Committee of the JCRC, is sponsoring the main stage talk by Tel Aviv’s Chief Knowledge Officer, Zohar Sharon.
  • For inspired young adults, the Urban Adamah Fellowship is a three-month residential leadership program for adults ages 21-31 that integrates urban organic farming, mindfulness practice, social justice training and progressive Jewish learning and living. Up to 14 fellows each summer and fall are selected to live, learn, and work on their urban farm campus. If interested, I encourage you to apply.
  • I am pleased to report that the bill requiring Holocaust and genocide education for all public high school students across the state passed the State Senate 27-0 and will be going to the House.

Shabbat shalom and have a wonderful Purim holiday

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