Image: Demonstration organized by Teens For Gun Reform, an organization created by students in the Washington DC area, in the wake of the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Photo by Lorie Shaull, some rights reserved.
In the past, the Book of Esther and its holiday of Purim have mostly been celebrated as a party in the United States. We’ve been in an extraordinarily peaceful time for the Jews of North America.
So much has changed since last Purim. Some of us may not feel in our usual Purim mood, wondering what festivity is really suitable. Every community has to decide that for itself.
It is quite certain, though, that the themes of the Scroll of Esther, themes of threat and dramatic reversal are very much with us right now. The sages speak of both the book of Esther and the holiday of Purim as hafuch – upside down, topsy-turvy – and we seem to be in the midst of reversals.
Anti-Semitism and White Supremacy: In August, Jews in the United States were faced with the spectre of a president who said, and repeated, that he thought “there is blame on both sides” in Charlottesville, where white supremacists threatened a synagogue while the local police declined a call for help. Like the Jews of Shushan, the Jews of Charlottesville were left unprotected. The fact that a non-Jewish woman who was attempting to counter the messages of hate was murdered by white supremacist violence underlined the fact that this was not paranoia, not drama, but genuine danger.
All manner of bigotries are on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports 957 hate groups currently active in the U.S. Wholesale hatred of African-Americans, Latinx persons, immigrants, Jews, Muslims and LGBTQ people has not been this open and shameless in decades.
#MeToo: In October, a different set of Esther themes resonated as a series of high-profile, powerful men lost their jobs when men and women began to speak up about their experiences of sexual harassment at the hands of those men. It seemed that the rules changed overnight: the accounts of victim/survivors were taken seriously. We are still in the midst of comings-out and revelations, and we are also beginning to see some backlash, but the situation is filled with echoes of the reversals in Esther, and the story of Vashti, the shamed queen from Chapter 1.
The Youth of Parkland: Then on February 14, 2018, we have witnessed yet another mass murder in a school, carried out by a white man armed with an assault rifle. At first it seemed much like the mass shootings that preceded it: white male uses legally acquired AR-15 to mow down an unthinkable number of students going about their business in what should have been a safe place. Then the story changed, with an Esther-like reversal: the victims have refused to behave like victims. They have already traveled to the state government in Tallahassee and to the federal government in Washington. They are organizing school walkouts and marches in the coming weeks and months. They are absolutely serious about fighting back against the horror of mass murder by AR-15, and they have rallied the hearts of many Americans.
It remains to be seen what comes of all of this. On the one hand, dark forces have been set loose in our society, given permission and encouragement by people at high levels of the government. On the other, the new willingness to listen to and believe victim/survivors of sexual violence is astonishing to many of us who had despaired of change in that quarter. The voices of the young men and women of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School seem downright miraculous. I am reminded of the line from the prophet Joel 3:1:
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, [while] your old men dream dreams, your youth shall see visions.
However you choose to observe Purim this year, whether with the usual Purim spiel or a more solemn observance, pay attention to all that is hafuch – upside down – in our world at the moment.
We can allow the spirit of Mordechai’s words to Esther to percolate through our being:
Who knows whether you are not come to royal estate for such a time as this? – Esther 4:14
Like Esther, we must use the tools at our disposal to right the wrongs in our world.