Purim won’t be the same this year. But perhaps a Purim without parties is exactly the time to rediscover the meaning behind the joy.
In an ordinary year, between noisemakers and speed-readers, there’s a risk that we’ll miss one of the most powerful exchanges in the Bible – contained in the Book of Esther that we read every Purim.
Esther, who lives in the king’s palace, initially refuses to speak up against Haman’s genocidal plan out of fear for her own life. She changes her mind and rises to become the leader we celebrate this week after Mordechai sends her a stinging appeal.
"Do not imagine that you of all the Jews will escape with your life by being in the king's palace," he tells her. "On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father's house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis."
It’s an extraordinary statement. On one hand, whatever decision Esther makes, it won’t ultimately determine whether the Jews of Persia survive. If she fails to step forward, they will be rescued by someone else. On the other hand, this crisis – and her opportunity to take action – may be the very reason she ended up in the king’s palace.
Nowhere does the Divine name appear in the Book of Esther. And yet, when reading about the near-death experience of the Jews of Persia, one feels that events are not simply being driven by the key players involved, but rather are unfolding according to a bigger plan. A holiday focused on real-life heroes and villains, ironically, reminds us that so much is beyond the power of human hands.
This is a meaningful lesson to draw from Purim in 2021. Over the past eleven months, medical staff and front-line workers have demonstrated the awe-inspiring impact a person can make in moments of crisis. We owe them more than we can ever repay. And yet, the pandemic reminds us every day – often in frustrating and painful ways – just how much in life is outside our control.
I’m also reminded of Mordechai’s appeal that a Jew in a position to make a difference must do so, refusing the temptation to focus on one’s own comfort. Since the very first lockdown last spring, we’ve seen this idea brought to life not only in the actions of those on the front lines, but in daily acts of selflessness, kindness, and generosity throughout our Jewish community.
Perhaps this is the meaning behind the joy of Purim. A celebration of the fact that, even in moments of peril, we are never truly powerless. Our actions matter because there are always others who are counting on us. But our actions are not all that matter because we’re never alone.
I wish you a happy, healthy, and safe Purim –Chag Purim Sameach,
President & CEO
UJA Federation of Greater Toronto