Dear TEE community,

Growing up, I don’t think I ever knew about the final chapters of the Book of Esther. The Purim story I learned was about Esther and Mordechai saving the Jews from the evil plans of Haman. What I never heard about was how they actually did it.

For those of you who haven’t read Chapter 9 in Esther, the details are gory. The story relates how King Ahasuerus had decreed that residents of his empire could take up arms and slaughter the Jews. When he discovered that Esther was a Jew he was dismayed but, according to the text, he could never reverse a royal decree. The answer was to allow the Jews to slaughter their opponents instead: “So the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies (Esther 9:5).” The narrative then goes on to relate that, over the course of two days, the Jews killed 750,810 people, including the ten sons of Haman, whom they impaled.

For many years, I saw this over the top violence at the end of the Book of Esther as a counterpart to the over the top farce at its beginning. I felt comfortable with this interpretation until Purim 1994. On that day, an American-Israeli settler name Baruch Goldstein entered a mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and opened fire on worshipers at Ramadan prayer. He murdered twenty-nine people and injured another 125 before being killed in turn. As scholar Shaul Magid writes, “It was a loss of innocence…I could never celebrate Purim the same way after 1994.” (See “How to Take Purim Seriously.“)

For a significant minority of Israelis, the massacre in Hebron was a modern day enactment of the biblical injunction to “wipe out Amalek,” a people whom we are told attacked the most vulnerable among the Israelites in their journey through the wilderness. Haman, the genocidal villain of the Purim story, is traditionally considered to be a descendant of Amalek, as are all enemies of the Jewish people (such as, for some, Adolf Hitler). For these Jews, including Itamar Ben-Givr, the current Israeli Minister of National Security, Goldstein is a hero who struck out against those whom they see as the modern day Amalekites – the Palestinians. His gravesite is a place of pilgrimage and his picture hangs in settler homes. Again to quote Rabbi Magid: “An enemy is one thing. Amalek is something quite different.”

I have many colleagues who abhor Purim because of the violence associated with it as well as the way it has become associated with Jewish supremacy. I especially find myself struggling with the story of Esther in this year of war between Israel and Hamas, when the desire for revenge plays so central a part. In light of these concerns, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, the founder of The Shalom Center, initiated the Chapter 9 Project – a series of authors reimagining the conclusion of the Esther story for a world of peace. In our observance of Purim on Friday March 22nd, we will include some of the Chapter 9 Project readings in our telling of the holiday story.

I believe that, while Purim has disturbing elements, it continues to have important teachings for us today as well. One is to not always take ourselves too seriously. I love that Judaism has a holiday where it’s traditional to make fun of authority. As spring approaches, we have the chance to loosen ourselves up a bit and have some fun.

Another profound teaching of the Book of Esther is one of authenticity. The queen hides her identity, yet it is when she reveals her true self that she is able to save her people. The custom of costumes, and especially masks, is both an opportunity to display other aspects of who we are and, at the same time, remind ourselves that we need not hide our true self, but deserve to be loved and appreciated for who we really are.

We will have the opportunity to enjoy these more lighthearted aspects of Purim in the coming weeks when we make hamentaschen, take part in our Purim Trivia Quiz, and have a get together for LGBTQ+ Jews and allies. (See details on the home page.)

I look forward to being with you as we embrace the serious and not at all serious aspects of Purim.

Rabbi Drorah Setel