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Purim and The Vulnerability of Exile

02/24/2015 09:06:35 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

 Purim gets a bad rap as a pediatric holiday. It’s great that kids have fun celebrating Purim, but sadly this important holiday’s child-focused reputation obscures the relevant and deadly serious currents that flow just beneath the surface.

A while back I spoke at a Catholic church in town about the spiritual connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel.  I pointed out that, while we were exiled from the land some 2,000 years ago, we never lost our deep, personal connection to Israel.  For example, we pray facing east toward Jerusalem and all our holidays have some connection to Israel. There were a number of Palestinian advocates in the audience and one of them, clearly Jewish, asked with a smirk on his face, “What about Purim?” “Purim,” I responded, “is the most Zionist holiday of them all.  Purim is all about the vulnerability of exile.” He did not like my response and shortly after that comment I was, literally, booed off the stage—the only time that has ever happened.

I guess my remarks hit a nerve while their behavior proved my point.  The vulnerability of exile.  Purim is written as a farce which both masks and makes more palatable its scary undercurrents. King Ahashverosh seems like a bumbling fool but his actions are far from benign. Do you really think Esther, or any other “virgin” in Shushan, would willingly choose to “go before the king”? What do you think happened when the king “met” with the various “beautiful virgins” of the realm? Perhaps you missed the mention in the Book of Esther that he would meet with each “contestant” from “evening till morning”?  You see, one of the vulnerabilities of exile is sexual violence. Rape is a horrific mainstay of homeless women’s lives, and sexual violence is an ever-present threat for stateless peoples everywhere.

Purim 2nd paragraphThe vulnerability of exile.  For most of the last 2,000 years we Jews have lived as a sometimes tolerated, more often persecuted minority in numerous cultures and countries around the globe. The pattern was that we would be welcomed into one kingdom or another, establish roots there, work hard and prosper until the political winds changed -- “A Pharaoh arises who does not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8) -- and we would become an alien threat rather than a protected and helpful minority. If we were lucky we would only lose our property. Often, we weren’t so lucky. Purim is the story in Jewish tradition that lays bare our vulnerability as a stateless people, then and now. There have been hundreds of Hamans over the centuries and this pattern of protection, prosperity and then violence has been repeated almost everywhere Jews have lived, from Iran (the site of the ancient Persian Empire depicted in the Purim story) to England.

I wish I could say that, thanks to the State of Israel and our acceptance, success and prosperity in America, this story no longer has relevance, but even with Israel’s existence and our prominence in America we are still vulnerable to this narrative. This has been made painfully clear by the regular and increasingly violent attacks against Jews in Europe. Who would have believed that we would again have refugees from France or that anti –Semitic violence would break out in Denmark? For a long time Laura and I have been contemplating a trip to the British Isles. I’ve been told that it is fine to be in England as a Jew; just keep it to yourself; don’t wear a kippah or any visible sign that you are Jewish, especially in London…

And then there is Iran, a country unapologetic about its goal to wipe Israel off the face of the planet. Hyperbole?   I wouldn’t bet on it.

For all its frivolity, Purim is hardly a child’s tale.  Though the impulse to have fun and make fun in the face of such a harsh and persistent reality is wise, let us not allow our suffering rather than our perseverance and many triumphs define who we are.

Come celebrate Purim with us on Wednesday, March 4, 2015 at 6:15 PM.


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