Purim’s Pandemic Prism

Purim is the perfect example of the old legal saying, “If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. If you have the law on your side, pound the law. If you have neither on your side, pound the table.”

I can hear the rabbis metaphorically “pounding on the table” over the traditional observance of Purim, for it’s a holiday of misdirection. The tradition has us concentrate on the “fun” parts, hoping we will ignore the glaring issues found in the text.

Examples? When Haman (boo!!) hatches his plot to kill all the Jews, Mordechai orders Esther to plead before the king. Esther balks. She hasn’t been called before the king for a long time. (Is he losing interest in her?) Uninvited, she courts execution.

Mordechai chides her: she will not escape Haman’s plot. In response, Esther says, “Go, gather together all the Jews who are present in Shushan. Fast for me. Neither eat nor drink for three days, night and day. I also, and my maidens, will fast likewise. So I will go to the king, though it is against the law. If I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:15 – 17).

The traditional purpose of fasting is to stay God’s hand and prevent calamity (see “Yom Kippur”). Having the entire community fasting metaphorically inoculates Esther from harm.

The key word is “all.” Wonder of wonders (miracle of miracles!), the Jews obey. There is no dissent.

At this point I have to object for we can no longer treat Esther as a historical document. It never happened.

Proof? Since when has the entire Jewish community done anything in unison? Does the tradition expect us to believe that there wasn’t some segment of the community that defied the order to fast? I can just imagine the naysayers: “Who is she (a woman!) to order us around? We have faith in God – God will save us! God is only testing us.”

Look at how disunited we are in response to the pandemic. Are we all wearing masks? Are we all getting vaccinated? One would think that with a bona fide danger threatening to engulf not only the Jews, but also the world, that we would get our act together.

So, what was so special about Esther’s community that they “all” followed her? The comparison may teach us lessons applicable to today.

We know that Esther is not a Hebrew name (we are told she is known as Hadassah). But do you know that Esther is the Hebraicized form of “Ishtar,” just as Mordechai comes from “Marduk,” the high gods of the Persian pantheon of gods? The heroes of Purim (if updated to today) would bear the names “Jesus” and “Mary.”

We are taught that Mordechai’s refusal to bow down to Haman comes from a Jewish antipathy of idolatry. But Haman never professed to be a god. (Don’t you think Ahasveyrosh, his boss, would have had something to say about it?) Jews are allowed to bow down for etiquette or political reality.

So what can we conclude about Esther’s community? Its leaders have really problematic names and they don’t seem to know Jewish law. They are assimilated.

Do you see why the rabbis are pounding on the table? We dress up and drink and make merry to avoid the inescapable conclusion that the Jews of Shushan are perhaps more Persian than Jewish.

And yet they ALL banded together to fight the pandemic called Haman. They all got vaccinated and all were wearing masks. They unified in the face of common threat.

This is not to say that the traditional community is not taking the threat seriously; but they are not consistent in their response. Which is why the inconsistent response of the Jewish community is not surprising. We are not united and we don’t agree on anything. We are not “one” and never have been.

The ultra-Orthodox are ambivalent when they believe faith in God is sufficient (see Zionism). Yet, they could learn a lesson from Esther and Mordechai: fasting can work – especially if we wear masks and take the vaccine. It is a powerful tandem.

Haman is portrayed as the implacable enemy of the Jewish people. You cannot negotiate or placate him. He is the virus that threatens to destroy all we know. It is our responsibility to do all we can to eradicate him. Now.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar is Founder and Executive Director of JSurge, an organization providing Jewish education and services to unaffiliated Jews. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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