Faith and fun — a winning combination for Purim

Many people know something about the Jewish High Holidays, about Hanukah and Passover. But there are other observances, too. In fact, there is usually just enough down time between important days to take a breath and look at the calendar and see what’s coming up next. Last month, it was Tu B’Shevat, the new year for the trees. This month, we just celebrated Purim, the Feast of Lots. No, it’s not about real-estate development. It’s about lots as in lottery- put all the numbers in a hat and pull out the winner (or as it turned out in this case, the loser). In this story, the villain was going to exterminate the Jews and chose the date by lottery. Instead, he ended up meeting his Maker on that very day.

Like so many Jewish holidays, there is a historical connection to this raucous and joyous celebration. Here’s a bit of background. In the year 423 BCE (Before the Common Era), the first Holy Temple was destroyed and most of the Jews were exiled to Babylon and Persia (Iran and Iraq).  In 369 BCE, Ahasuerus of Persia ascended the throne and ruled over the immense 127-province Persian Empire, which then included Babylon. The majority of the world’s Jews were living under his jurisdiction, so Haman was intending genocide. Here’s a brief summary of what happened next:  Esther, a Jew, becomes the new queen and risks her life to come unbidden before the king to set the stage to plead for the lives of her people, who are scheduled to be exterminated by the king’s trusted advisor, Haman. (Haman holds a grudge against Esther’s uncle Mordechai in particular and all Jews in general) Haman is exposed for the villain he is, Esther is beloved by the king, Mordechai is honored by the king, and the Jews are saved. Like other times in Jewish history, things look grim but flip-flop. Whew! For the complete story of Purim, with all its twists and turns, read the Book of Esther in what Christians identify as the Old Testament. 

The story of Purim is written in a separate scroll called the megillah and is chanted on Purim for all to hear. Those gathered listen carefully; when the name of the villain is mentioned, they boo and make noise with their gragers(a simple mechanical noisemaker guaranteed to make any parent of small, enthusiatic children shudder), because we are commanded to drown out the name of Haman. The young and the young at heart dress in costumes (often of the characters in the Purim story, but not always). In large Jewish communities, there may be a festive Purim carnival. Costumes appear at the Purim service (the Lion of Judah led our service this year!). There is often a satirical purimshpiel, or Purim play. Hilarity is encouraged and a good time is had by all. And of course, there’s food- triangular, jam-filled cookies called hamentaschen(“Haman’s ears”).

In the Book of Esther, God is not mentioned, but rather stays hidden. Why? Scholars and Sages explain that it is to emphasize that God is always there in the background, but people have free will, and must make the right choices. Esther rose to the occasion and put her own life on the line, and her freewill actions saved an entire people. Mordechai, too, faced a difficult choice and made an enemy but saved the king’s life. His actions also contributed to the happy ending. There are so many other incidents in our history when people were saved at a time when it looked like all was lost- and those occasions are referred to as purims.

So what’s the take-away from Purim? Make the right choices, even when they are tough. Know that God is always there, even if He seems hidden. Hope for the best and choose to act to change things for the better, even in the worst of times. And on the bumpy road of life’s journey, don’t forget to  have fun along the way!

Suzanne Schermerhorn is the lay leader of Knesseth Israel Synagogue in Gloversville