“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. Cry, if I want to, cry if I want to. You would cry, too, if it happened to you.”
Wally Gold, writer of No. 1 hit for Lesley Gore, 1963.
The whole thing started with a great bash thrown by the new and foolish emperor.
Everybody was invited. Naturally, invitations were first sent to the governors, mayors and alderman. The rich received an engraved welcome. Finally, the king opened the doors to all of Shushan — seven days of revelry.
The Jews came as well. Indeed, Ahasuerus, whose name means “hero among kings,” made sure to deploy a kosher section — probably lox and bagels for starters, followed by a main meal of chicken soup, kugel and cholent. Every type of beverage was available, suitable for any age. The palace halls were adorned with gold and silver tables; the beds were covered by the most precious of fabrics.
Why? Because Ahasuerus was celebrating the downfall of the Jewish people. He and his advisers knew of the prophecy of Jeremiah that the exile of the Jewish people would last 70 years. The king had feared that they would soon return to the Land of Israel, rebuild the Temple, their divine glory restored. So, Ahasuerus waited anxiously until when he thought the 70th year had passed without incident.
Now, Ahasuerus wanted the Jews at his party so he could gloat over their exile. To his surprise, the Jewish elite in Shushan celebrated their gilded cage with gusto. Nobody else in the capital dared to say otherwise.
Next door to Ahasuerus was the palace of Vashti, the queen and great grand-daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian ruler who destroyed the first Jewish Temple. She was the cruelest of women and enjoyed seeing Jewish girls suffer. She made them strip and scrub the floors of the palace. Her favorite time for this torture was the Jewish Sabbath.
But that didn’t stop the privileged Jews and their hangers-on from attending the party. It would have been impolite to ask Vashti, meaning “best among women,” to clothe and free the Jewish slaves. It certainly would have ruined the festive atmosphere. Most of the Jews merely shrugged and went to back to their Sharbat and cheesecake.
And G-d watched with dismay. The Jews were denying His presence, His protection and the promise of impending redemption. They would need a reminder that without G-d, there could only be tragedy.
Soon after the feast, Ahasuerus found himself with a new adviser, Haman, an Amalekite, former slave and barber who knew little about the affairs of state except that the emperor wanted the Jews dead. Haman persuaded the king that this could be done — cheaply.
Even without knowing the story of Purim, we would have recognized Ahasuerus and Haman. In 1933, German President Paul von Hindenburg began a formal alliance with Adolf Hitler. Von Hindenburg, the hero of World War I, ridiculed Hitler as the “Austrian corporal” but valued his dictatorial and antisemitic ambitions. The 84-year-old president allowed Hitler to end civil liberties and attack the Jews in the streets of German cities. The only thing von Hindenburg asked was that Jewish war veterans remain an exception. At least 12,000 Jews had died in combat during the war, the highest percentage of any denomination in Germany.
Feigning utter humility, Hitler agreed until the president died two years later in August 1934 of lung cancer. Two hours after his death, Hitler, now supported by the military, announced that he was both head of state and government — an absolute dictator.
Then, the war against the Jews began in earnest.
Hitler’s job was more difficult than that of Ahasuerus and Haman. Haman had to identify Jews in 127 states, but the great majority followed tradition. In Germany, many Jews had long assimilated and embraced Christianity. In cooperation with the church, Hitler gained access to the baptismal records of former Jews that extended back more than a century. Like the Jews in Persia, their German counterparts had been totally loyal and replaced G-d with the powers in Berlin.
In the story of Purim, the path to salvation began with Mordechai, who knew Haman from the wars of Persia. In the trenches, Haman had sold himself to the Jew for a sip of water. Now as chief palace adviser, Haman demanded that all bow to him. All did — with the exception of Mordechai. Haman did not feel he could kill Mordechai, who only recently had saved Ahasuerus from an assassination attempt, but he could kill all the rest of the Jews.
Mordechai’s refusal to treat Haman as a deity restored G-d’s formula that one righteous man could save the entire Jewish people. Mordechai enlisted the aid of his niece, Esther, the new queen of Ahasuerus, to speak for her brethren. Although married to the king, she despised her husband, and until Mordechai’s request refused to sleep with him. She saw him as more evil than Haman. But she agreed with Mordechai that Ahasuerus would be more susceptible to her charms than his aide.
What Esther demanded from the Jews of Shushan was repentance. Where the Jews had separated from each other through the temptations of power and greed, they must now unite. Where they had feasted in honor of the exile, they must fast for three days. Where they had spent their days and weeks in the palace in frivolity, they would have to pray for Esther and the rest of the Jewish people. And finally, when the time was right, they must launch the offensive and destroy the would-be killers organized by Haman.
And that is why the Talmud says that in the final redemption all Jewish holidays will be annulled. The exception will be Purim. Because Purim serves as the roadmap to redemption and the Messiah. That map requires repentance, faith, sacrifice and ultimately courage to face our enemies — particularly Amalek.
So, we eat, drink and make merry on Purim to correct the fateful sin of Ahasuerus’ feast. We exchange gifts of food to end the divisions between Jews. And we help the poor unstintingly to remind ourselves that we cannot be happy while our brethren go hungry.
The Jewish celebration throughout Persia soon led to the completion of the Temple in Jerusalem and the return to Israel. Neither lasted because the Jews could not sustain their appreciation for G-d’s mercies.
Today promises to be different. We have been in exile for nearly 2,000 years, occupied by foreign powers everywhere. The successor to Ahasuerus is openly calling for another genocide. Purim now becomes the formula for eternal salvation.
It only depends on us.