Image: 19th c painting of Hasidic Jews celebrating Purim with a Sephardic Jew (left). The inscription  “Ad lo yada” is part of a passage from Talmud urging Jews to feast and celebrate. Collection of Isaac Einhorn, Tel Aviv. (Erich Lessing/Art Resource NY.) Public Domain.

The Scroll of Esther records a grave threat to the Jews of Persia, a threat that was quelled only by the massacre of our enemies. The book makes clear that there was no other way: it was a fight to the death. You might think that the “lesson learned” would be: Fight back, even if you have to kill.

However, this is the command near the end of the Scroll of Esther:

Mordecai recorded these events. And he sent dispatches to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, near and far, charging them to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, every year — the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.  – Esther 9: 20-22

Mordecai did these things:

  1. He wrote the story.
  2. He commanded that the Jews of Persia observe the 14th and 15th of Adar.
  3. He commanded that they feast, send gifts to one another, and send presents to the poor.

This is where we get the four mitzvot of Purim:

  1. Hear the Scroll read aloud.
  2. Have a feast.
  3. Send gifts to one another.  (Traditionally, food.)
  4. Send gifts to the poor.  (Traditionally gifts of food.)

The ancient rabbis were particularly concerned that everyone hear the Scroll of Esther read aloud. Mishnah Megillah  begins:

The Megillah [Scroll of Esther] is read on the eleventh, on the twelfth, on the thirteenth, on the fourteenth, [or] on the fifteenth [of Adar], not earlier and not later. Cities surrounded with walls from the days of Yehoshua son of Nun read it on the fifteenth [of Adar]. Villages and large cities read it on the fourteenth, but villages read in advance on the day of assembly.

 How does it work? If the fourteenth of the month fell on a Monday, villages and large cities read on that day, and those surrounded by a wall – on the next day. If it fell on a Tuesday or a Wednesday – villages [read] in advance on the day of assembly, and large cities read on that day, and those surrounded by a wall – on the next day. If it fell on a Thursday, villages and large cities read on that day, and those surrounded by a wall – on the next day. If it fell on the day before Shabbat – villages [read] in advance on the day of assembly, and large cities and cities surrounded by a wall read on that day. If it fell on Shabbat, villages and large cities read in advance on the day of assembly, and those surrounded by a wall – on the next day. If it fell after Shabbat, villages [read] in advance on the assembly day, and large cities read on that day, and cities surrounded by a wall – on the next day. – Mishnah Megillah 1:1-2
That’s just a taste. The ancient rabbis were absolutely determined that we should hear the words of the Scroll of Esther every single year. If not one day, then another day. If not the other day, then yet another. They convey a sense of urgency in those lines. Mishnah is usually telegraphic, brief bursts of commands and questions, but here the rabbis hammer at us: Read it. Read it. READ IT!!!

 

And if we look at their times, all becomes clear. The Mishnah was written down from oral tradition by the year 200 CE, just after two bloody revolts that scattered the Jewish people into the Galut, an exile, that would last for almost two thousand years. They had seen the murder of their greatest teachers. They had seen families torn apart, entire towns sold into slavery, their holy city ground into dust. They had seen the absolute worst that Rome could dish out, and they knew it would not end anytime soon.

 

They knew that we needed Purim for all the days that lay ahead.

 

The message of Purim is “Don’t give up.” The message of Purim is “Persist.” The message of Purim is that the bad guys are going to do what they do – they’re Haman! – but we will not be defeated. We are so sure that we will not be defeated that we schedule our celebration in advance.

 

Yes, in a good year, it’s a children’s holiday. But in a tough year, in a year when our dead are defiled and our Jewish Community Centers receive threat after threat after threat, we remind ourselves that we are tough competitors, so tough that we will schedule our celebration amidst it all.

 

We will not be intimidated.
We will not let you see us sweat.
Those are the defiant messages of the holiday of Purim. We celebrate to remind ourselves of that.
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