Erica Brown

Purim offers 4 ways to heal the wounds of war – when the time is right

The best antidote to hate is gifts of affection, even when the tangerines are old and the licorice stale
Mishloach manot. (iStock)
Mishloach manot. (iStock)

By the end of Purim, our kitchen table is a mountain of Hershey kisses, stale licorice, and old tangerines. I promise myself I won’t eat any of the hamantaschen – unless they have apricot filling. I’m not sure what to do with all the small bottles of grape juice except to pour them together to fill up one big bottle. Lone jellybeans roll off the counter. My kids are experts at repurposing mishloach manot, small Purim gifts for friends, for all the nice people at our door who I forgot to put on the list.

I’ve always struggled with the food waste and the overly-elaborate, themed, status baskets. I never understood why this mitzvah is up there with the other three mitzvot of Purim: listening to the Purim megillah story, having a festive meal, and giving tzedakah (charity) to the needy, in the form of matanot l’evyonim (literally, gifts to the poor). Honestly, no one I know needs more candy, more popcorn, or more cookies, especially four weeks before Passover. But now, during this protracted and painful war, I finally understand the significance of this mitzvah.

This year, the Hebrew month of Adar ushers in a muted happiness. The usual joyous chaos and merriment in school halls and synagogues is tempered by our constant awareness of the war and of antisemitism everywhere. We can put on costumes, but they will not mask our obvious anxieties.

The pressing danger has actually intensified Purim’s relevance. The megillah testifies to the sad truth that we Jews have continuously paid a price for our uniqueness. Our differences have more often been vilified than valorized. The first recorded articulation of this intolerance appears right in the scroll: “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm” (Esther 3:8). It was no crime to be spread out in multiple locations, until Haman made it one. In the very same breath, we were also falsely accused of not being law-abiding citizens.

This accusation alone was insufficient to match Haman’s contempt. He recommended that the Jews be killed as a result: “It is not in your majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” Haman was even willing to pay for our demise: “…let an edict be drawn for their destruction, and I will pay 10,000 talents of silver…”

Haman’s stinging words could have consigned us to oblivion had Esther and Mordechai not intervened. We understand today — again — what it means to be hated and harmed as a result. This war has given us heroes. The heroes of the Purim story taught us not only to stand up for our people; they also taught us how to restore hope to society in the aftermath of hate’s grip.

Mordechai, in chapter nine, mandated the way the war was to be remembered. He recorded the events and then declared ritual observances. Each mitzvah of Purim corresponds and addresses a different challenge of war and offers four prescriptions to neutralize hate’s traumatizing effects. Hearing the scroll, having a festive meal, bestowing gifts to friends, and giving charity all respond to, commemorate, and heal the wounds of war, both then and now. Mordechai, in an act of leadership genius, understood what was needed in the moment and in perpetuity.

1) Tell Your Own Story

We read the Book of Esther twice each Purim because Mordechai named us as the story-tellers who should self-report the narrative. “Mordecai recorded these events. And he sent dispatches to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus…” (Esther 9:20). This helped frame experience and memory since the fog of war can create confusion and make the narrative unclear. It also helped alter the prevailing story from one of victimhood to one of victory: “The Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy” (Esther 9:22). Despite Ahasuerus’s postal service and the annals of Persia and Media, Mordechai took control of the story himself.

In war, people pick sides, tell alternate stories, record highly selective facts, perpetuate lies, and shape truths to suit military and political agendas. These days, we spend so much time in the cesspool of antisemitic reporting that we feel drained and helpless. We don’t pay sufficient attention to our own miracle stories and to the fabric of unity and kindness during these impossible months. When this war is finally over, we must tell a better story, our own story.

  1. Allow Joy’s Return

Mordechai commanded a meal to mark the war’s end: “They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking…” (Esther 9:22). There was mourning all over Shushan and ancient Persia. Death surrounded the Jews. Post-war, it is natural to focus on the losses and the intense grief for all that has been destroyed and must be rebuilt. One of the great myths of war is that one side wins and one side loses, for when you lose, you lose, and when you win, you also lose. You lose belief in humanity’s goodness. Military victories cannot erase the pain and the violence of remembrance. The despair is flattening and shattering. You can forget how to laugh.

In Essays on Ethics, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “Jews have known suffering, isolation, hardship, and rejection, yet they never lacked the religious courage to rejoice. A people that can know insecurity and still feel joy is one that can never be defeated, for its spirit can never be broken nor its hope destroyed.”

Mordechai, by instituting a festive meal, gave people permission to be happy. In doing so, he did not remove the sting of war permanently, but reminded his people that being human invites a range of emotions and that they would and could smile again. Invite others to the table and celebrate the blessings.

  1. Restore Justice

One of the greatest and most depressive aspects of any war is the prevailing sense of injustice. Soldiers’ lives are brutally cut short. Innocent civilians are killed. Buildings are demolished. Where’s the fairness in that? How do we maintain faith? Mordechai asked us to give “presents to the poor” (Esther 9:22). We are each obligated to lift up the weak as an act of commemoration. Wars often make the poor even poorer and make us question society’s gravest inequities. Giving to the poor helps honor and elevate those desperate and forlorn.

  1. Demonstrate Love and Affection

We give mishloach manot, gifts to friends, not because they need gifts, but because we love our friends. And because the best antidote to hate is the gift of our affections. Each small Purim present is a small affirmation that says wars may come and go, but it is friendship that will steady our days and make them worthwhile. When we indulge our friends, especially those who are not expecting gifts, we clear away the destructive film that war leaves on everything it touches and we replace it with a net of kindness, as we have seen time and again in these past months.

We do not know how this war will end or how this story will be told in history books in the future, but Purim offers us a glimpse of what the aftermath of war demands of us: an increase in meaning, happiness, justice, and friendship. Use this Purim to tell soldiers, friends, and family what they mean to you along with all those stray Laffy Taffys and juice boxes you are distributing. Let’s find a way to spread the joy far and wide to those who really need our love right now.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).
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