What Story Is Read on Purim? Why?
The story starts with Ahasuerus, King of Shushan, enjoying a royal feast, and then his wife, Queen Vashti, disobeyed one of his commands, so he divorced her and sought another wife.
The king had a loyal minister called Mordecai, who was a Jew and who had a beautiful niece, Esther. Mordecai sent Esther to apply for becoming the king’s new wife, and the king was so impressed with Esther that he married her. However, following her uncle’s order, Esther kept it a secret from the king that she was Jewish.
Soon afterward, Mordecai, while sitting at the king’s gate, overheard that two conspirators, Bigtan and Teresh, were plotting to assassinate the king. Mordecai thus passed on this knowledge to Esther, who told King Ahaseurus, and he executed Bigtan and Teresh. While we would expect the king to reward Mordecai for this deed, the king surprisingly rewarded and promoted not Mordecai, but Haman, and Haman gained a very powerful position in the kingdom as head of all ministers.
Out of all people in the kingdom, Mordecai was the only one who refused to accept anyone besides King Ahaseurus as ruler. This infuriated Haman, and as a result, Haman ordered the genocide of all Jewish people—women and children included. He justified his decision to King Ahaseurus by stating that the Jews were scattered and dispersed, and that the king would be better off without them because they do not obey his laws. The king approved Haman’s request.
When Mordecai heard about the order to kill all Jews, he was shocked. He proceeded to tear his clothes, cover himself with a sack, and pour ashes all over himself, and then he started yelling about it all over the city of Shushan until he reached the king’s gate.
When Esther heard about Mordecai’s frenzy, she sent servants to dress him up but he refused. He told them to tell Esther about the plan to kill all the Jews, and that she must beg the king to undo it. Esther was terrified because she thought that the king would disapprove of her request. However, thanks to Mordecai’s persistence, she finally agreed but passed on the message through Mordecai to the Jews of Shushan that they need to unite around this request to save their lives.
The Jews’ uniting gave Queen Esther the strength she needed to approach King Ahaseurus with the request to reverse his decision. It is considered a miracle that he accepted this request, because it was only customary for the king to call up anybody whom he had a request for. At that point, she revealed to the king that she was Jewish, and that Haman was planning to kill them all.
Around this point, the king also learned how Mordecai was the one who saved his life from Bigtan and Teresh’s plot to assassinate him, and his attitude to Haman turned bitter. While Haman had been preparing gallows upon which he would execute Mordecai, the king became so upset with Haman that he ordered his execution, and the execution of his entire family, on the very gallows that Haman had prepared for Mordecai. And from then on, the Jews’ lives were saved, and they reveled and feasted in their unification.
Since that time, it has been customary to celebrate Purim with a lot of joy, eating cookies called hamantashes (Haman’s Ears), giving gifts to the poor, wearing costumes and masks, and drinking so much alcohol so that we cannot tell good (Mordecai) from bad (Haman).
Besides the joyous atmosphere that surrounds Purim, it has a very important and serious message specifically for the Jewish people. Especially in times when antisemitism is exponentially on the rise globally, the Purim story shows us that the Jews’ only “weapon” against the rising hatred toward them is their unity.
We can and should protect ourselves and our loved ones. However, if we wish to rid ourselves of the negative sentiment coming at us from all directions, then we need to unite. The custom of giving gifts to the poor (usually portions containing hamantashes and wine) is a sign of closeness, an expression of a desire to bring all factions of the nation together. Our great sages over the generations have repeatedly told us that our unity will be our salvation from any negativity toward us.
The Book of Zohar, in the portion, Aharei Mot (item 66), takes the importance and seriousness of our unity one major step forward, that our unity not only brings us peace, but it brings peace to the whole world.
You, the friends who are here, as you were in fondness and love before, henceforth you will not part from one another, until the Lord rejoices with you and declares peace over you. And by your merit there will be peace in the world.
Antisemitism is a constant pressing reminder that we Jews need to unite just as the Jews did in the Purim story, and that if we do, we will be saved from harm. Moreover, as The Zohar writes, our unity will spread beyond our own bubble to humanity at large.
Similarly to how Haman’s reasoning to commit genocide on all Jews, including women and children, seemed over the top, we likewise see how seemingly illogical so much anti-Jewish reasoning is. It is because a lot of people instinctively feel how the Jews’ are behind the various forms of pain and suffering they feel in their lives, and they blame the Jews for standing behind much of theirs and the world’s suffering—while Jews themselves have no such intentions.
If we thus unite among each other, and show that we wish to share our unity with the world, we would then serve as an example of brotherly love above differences that no other nation could display.
Humanity today desperately needs the inclination to unite above differences, and this is the ability that we Jews have the potential to provide. Haman is a symbol of our rampant egoistic desires for honor and power at all costs. These desires stop us from caring about each other, and make us wish to trample on others in order to expand our own personal empires. If we Jews give into such desires, then people around the world instinctively feel that we are doing something wrong, and antisemitic sentiment swells against us.
Antisemitism is thus part and parcel of the laws of nature, a reminder of our need to unite above our differences, and to serve as a unifying example for the world. If we exercise the condition that our ancestors once met, “love your neighbor as yourself,” we can revitalize the emotion of unification, which would in turn overcome our rampant egoistic demands represented by Haman.
When we do so, then the world will see the true value of what Jews represent—that there is no matter of superiority in the Jews’ existence, but a need to reach a state of genuinely caring for each other and acting as a conduit for such care to spread worldwide.
We then reach a sensation of humanity as a single soul, i.e. we feel a unified desire connect us, and in such unity, we experience harmony and peace.
The purpose of antisemitism is thus to push us to realize our unifying role in the world, which is the meaning of us being “a light unto the nations.” We would be wise to learn how to unite, and to exercise unity above our own differences, because by doing so, we would experience its myriad benefits of joy, strength and prosperity. When we unite, we eliminate hatred, antisemitism, wars and all forms of negativity that emerges from within human egoism to divide people.
It is my hope that we use the Purim holiday as a reminder of our need to unite, and that we move in a unifying direction sooner rather than later. We would then spare ourselves and humanity much suffering.