The holiday of Purim is one of two rabbinic holidays (it’s not mentioned in Five Books of Moses) celebrated yearly. The holiday commemorates the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people living in the Persian Empire 2,400 years ago. It is also recounts the first (of many) recorded attempted genocides against the Jewish people.
The background to the story is as follows: Around 2,500 years ago, the Babylonians conquered the Jewish state of Judea, Jerusalem was captured, the First Temple was destroyed and most of the Jewish population was exiled to Babylon. Not long after, the Persians overran the Babylonians, and thus the entire world’s Jewish population found itself within the Persian Empire.
Despite the initial trauma of exile, the succeeding generations, born in exile, prospered and lived comfortably in the Diaspora (much like Jews of North America and Europe today). The Persian emperor, Ahashverosh, had even taken a Jewish woman, Esther to be his queen. (According to the narrative in the Book of Esther in the Bible, Esther was the niece of Mordechai, the spiritual leader of the Jewish community, but hid her family history and her Jewish origins from the emperor).
Like so many other occasions in Jewish history, the peaceful, prosperous existence amongst the Gentiles would suddenly be shattered.
Haman, a descendant of the Amalakites-the arch enemy of the Jewish people, was appointed viceroy of the Persian Empire. One of Haman’s first actions as viceroy was to receive permission from the emperor to slaughter all the Jews in the Empire, effectively eradicating the Jewish people.
As with Hitler thousands of years later, the greatest threat to the Jews had come at the least expected time and place. (Prior to Hitler’s rise to power Jews were living comfortably in Germany – arguably the most culturally and technology advanced country in the world as was the Persian Empire).
Threatened with total annihilation, world Jewry was in a complete panic. Mordechai’s first act was to make contact with his niece, the queen, who – living cloistered in the palace – was blissfully ignorant of the looming catastrophe that faced her people. Esther’s reaction to the news was quite unexpected. Faced with the greatest possible physical threat to the Jewish people, one would have expected her to react with a sweeping call for drastic action but the first words out of her mouth are: “Go assemble all the Jews in Shushan (the capital) and fast for me.” (After several days of fasting Esther planned to approach the Emperor and set in motion a daring plan to save the Jews.)
The Book of Esther - The Bible's account of the miraculous events
There are two tremendous lessons we can learn from Esther actions:
The first is a fundamental lesson of Judaism that all physical threats ultimately have spiritual origins. The physical threat is only a symptom, and while symptoms must be treated (the Jewish people must always actively defend themselves from their enemies) the only cure is to deal with the disease. From the Torah’s perspective, the most dangerous disease facing the Jewish people has always been a breakdown in the Jewish people’s relationship with each other or with God.
The second fundamental lesson is that Jewish unity is an essential prerequisite for safety and prosperity. Internal peace is the key ingredient to achieving external peace with the nations whether in Israel or the Diaspora. As Abraham Lincoln stated so profoundly during the Civil War: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
With these two lessons in mind, we can now understand Esther’s instructions to the Jewish people. Her real message was unity and tshuva (which means “return” or “repentance”) – fasting is used as tool in Judaism for introspection and repentance. Unity and collective repentance of the Jewish people have always been the strongest weapons in the war against anti-Semitism.
Thousands of years ago, King Solomon, who was the wisest of all men, wrote “there is nothing new under the sun.” History always repeats itself, and threats against the Jewish people seem to be always looming just over the horizon.
Now would be an ideal time for the Jewish people to take a page out of one of the most miraculous stories of salvation in our history and do as the Jews of Shushan did 2,400 years ago – make Jewish unity the top priority of the Jewish people.