Purim

Persia, 369 BCE – 355 BCE

March 5, 2009
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Miriam nervously stirred the pot of overcooked lentils, as she watched Shmuel putting on his finest silk robe. “Don’t you think there is something wrong with you going to a party that celebrates our people’s downfall? Some king thinks our exile has gone beyond its prescribed seventy year limit, he throws a party to show off how he beat G-d, and you’re going? What’s wrong with you?” Shmuel looked at her with rising anger, how many times did he have to explain to this woman that he had no choice? How would it look if people from every single nation in Achashverosh’s kingdom came to the largest party he ever made, and there was no Jewish representation?

Not only that, Achashverosh had promised that there would be kosher food, kosher wine, and no pressure to drink! He was going to such great lengths to accommodate the Jews, and it would be downright offensive to stand him up! Miriam was beginning to sound like that preachy Mordechai, getting up in all the synagogues, telling all the Jews to boycott the greatest party ever in the history of Persia. With a grunt, Shmuel walked out of the house.

For weeks after the party, Shmuel lost no chance to throw around the “I told you so” look. The party had gone real well for the Jews. They were treated with great respect, given the finest kosher food and wine, and were encouraged to mingle with the hundreds of nationalities at the party with no discrimination. Not only that but Queen Vashti, the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzer who had destroyed the Holy Temple, was killed, and the Jews got to see the last vestige of that evil dynasty wiped away in shame. Shmuel was also secretly happy about Haman the new viceroy, a real man’s man, whose first edict gave men total power in the home. The only annoyance at the party was Mordechai standing outside, like a used cow salesman, trying to convince people to walk away and join him in the study hall.

As the years went by, Haman became increasingly power hungry, eventually writing legislation requiring everyone to bow down to him. Many Jews did it begrudgingly, but Shmuel was OK with it. This was the man who got rid of Vashti, this was the viceroy who legislated husband dominance, and he was the one who helped find the mystery queen, who everyone was crazy over. A little bowing here and there was fine, everyone else was doing it.

Once again, Miriam was siding with Mordechai, that hopelessly outdated relic of the Men of the Great Assembly, who was as usual trying to be different and difficult. He alone wouldn’t bow, and there was a lot of rumbling that he was bringing negative attention to all the Jews in the Persian empire, who were finally gaining acceptance and equality. This couldn’t have been timed any worse, they finally had a king who would let them blend in with the rest of the people and forget their troubled past, and here he was sticking out. The Jews had been outsiders for too long, and Shmuel was tired of it.

Then there was that fateful morning, when the king’s courier nailed a huge proclamation on the obelisk in the town square. It called for the total annihilation of all Jews on a date less than a year away. Shmuel was in total denial. He heard his friendly Persian neighbor Kambiz talking to his children about how they would split up the possessions of their Jewish neighbors. The bathhouse he frequented no longer served Jews. People openly mocked and spit upon Jews walking in the streets. Miriam, ever the wise Jewish wife, never rubbed it in. She simply encouraged Shmuel to develop a relationship with Mordechai, and perhaps learn from him how Jews dealt with discrimination and hatred in the past. But, Shmuel couldn’t bring himself to humbly approach the man he had disliked for so long.

But then Mordechai asked the Jews to do something never done before in the history of the Jewish civilization in Persia. He asked every one of them to unite in their synagogues for three days of prayers and fasting. He said it would counteract the Jews’ mistake in trying to blend with their neighbors during the party of Achashverosh and ever since, in an attempt to forget about their unique place in the world. With everyone else going, Shmuel went too. He actually found himself surprisingly innervated after a day of fasting and praying in the crowded synagogue, a place he had avoided for years. The children came, the women came, the elderly, the infirm -everyone was there praying, pouring out their hearts to G-d, asking Him to once again show them favor, and they promised to recognize their relationship with him.

The three days were immediately followed by feared whispers about the revered queen showing special attention to their archenemy Haman and inviting him to private parties, but the people kept on praying and hoping. The next day, Miriam called to Shmuel, “Come here, come here, you’re not going to believe this!” There, beneath their window, was Haman, covered in latrine waste, and leading a horse with Mordechai on it through the streets! By that night the word spread through the streets, Haman was swinging from a pole, the Queen was a Jew, and Mordechai was given Haman’s position as viceroy of the kingdom!

From that day on, Shmuel changed his demeanor. He enrolled his children in the Jewish school, became active in the synagogue, and began studying in Mordechai’s study hall. To his surprise, his neighbors actually began to give him more respect, and there was a dramatic change in the air. On the 13th of Adar, the Jews rose up against their enemies, and had a decisive victory. Shmuel led a Jewish brigade through the capital of Shushan, eliminating famous Jew haters who had promised to lead the genocide of the Jews.

Euphoria was in the air, but this time, the Jews knew where there good fortune was coming from. They knew it was coming from G-d who in hindsight had been with them the whole time. They re-affirmed their commitment to keep the Torah, to recognize the unique role Jews have in the world, and to resist the urge to blend in. After a heated debate amongst the Sages they even established a holiday to commemorate those times.

It was two years later, and Shmuel and Miriam had just returned from delivering their Mishloach Manot baskets. Their children had dressed up like the Chinese traders who frequently came through while traveling the Silk Road. The theme for their mishloach manot had been Chinese food, and their silk bags were filled with lychee nuts, sugared rice patties, and a little flask of green tea. As they sat down to their Purim meal, Shmuel watched the children divide up the treats they had received. He silently prayed that neither they nor their children nor their children’s children would ever forget the lessons he had learned the hard way. And even though he was sure that they would encounter difficult times again, he knew that they would never be alone.

Happy Purim!

Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.