Purim is celebrated this year starting at sundown on Monday, March 6.
This holiday commemorates the survival of the Jews who were marked for genocide by their Persian rulers in the 5th century BCE. The king of the empire, Xerxes I, known by the Hebrew name Ahasuerus in the biblical story, needed a new queen. Having scoured all of the provinces of his kingdom, he selected the fair and wise Esther from his own capital city of Susa, also called Shushan.
However, unknown to the monarch his beloved bride was a Jewess. Indeed, her uncle Mordachai was the de facto leader of the Jewish community. Shortly after Queen Esther was crowned, Haman the king’s chief vizier, advised and convinced the ruler to rid his lands of all Israelites essentially because they were different in terms of religion, customs, and ethnicity and therefore should be considered a rebellious threat.
A date for the mass murder was randomly set by the casting of lots, which in the local dialect was called a pur, hence the name of Purim.
Upon learning of the planned massacre, Esther risked her own life--and at a dramatic moment she interceded by revealing her true identity. Once Xerxes realized that his own wife would perish if Haman’s wishes were carried out, he issued a decree that would save the entire Jewish population. This date was then crystallized by the Jewish community as a holiday with joyful meals and much merriment as a horrific tragedy was prevented.
Just last week a loose network of Neo Nazis and white supremacists randomly selected February 25th as a self proclaimed Day of Hate across America. They urged their supporters and sympathizers to engage in protests, vandalism such as graffiti and other measures against Jews and Jewish institutions. Law enforcement, from Federal agencies, state, county and local police departments in close cooperation with Jewish leaders quickly mobilized and demonstrated a strong presence at synagogues and other sensitive areas.
Likely because those who protect and serve boldly revealed their identity just at the right time, the ominous day passed without incident.
Recently there is a frightening increase in divisiveness of all kinds, with fear of the “other,” xenophobia, discrimination, prejudice, bigotry, hate crimes and acts of violence against Blacks, Jews, Asians, immigrants, Latinos, and Muslims occurring everywhere in our country. Gender, sexual orientation and even political persuasion have been used as justifications for spewing epithets or worse.
When we read the ancient Book of Esther and happily remember how disaster was avoided because good people stood up for what is right, we cannot help but think how relevant and important that lesson is today.
Rabbi Jack Zanerhaft is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El of Long Beach.