Like every Jewish holiday, there’s more to Purim than meets the eye. What appears to be a simple story is layered with complexity. The happy ending is darker than we might suppose. And our joyous customs – costumes, noisemakers, hamantaschen, gifts – symbolize relief as much as joy.
On the one hand, the Purim story follows the supposedly classical Jewish holiday paradigm of “They tried to kill, we defeated them, let’s eat.” Haman indeed tries to kill us all, but Mordechai rallies Esther who alerts the king and – we win, they lose, let’s celebrate.
On the other hand, this is a story about the anxiety of exile. It’s about how a supposedly successful diaspora community – with a Jewish queen and Jews holding important posts in the bureaucracy – becomes suddenly vulnerable, prey to the whims of an anti-Semitic madman, and a mostly indifferent king. We win in the end, but mostly through chance – Esther happened to be in the right place at the right time. The name of the holiday itself – Purim, meaning “chance” or “lots” – indicates the random nature of our salvation. So the anxiety lingers.
On the other hand (a third hand!), the story is about individual bravery and human agency. Mordechai risks his livelihood and reputation to save his people. Esther risks her life. Neither give in to despair. Both embrace the power of individual action. They rightly become inspiring role models for our children.
Finally, there’s the odd fact that G-d isn’t mentioned in the story at all. It’s the only book in the Torah where G-d seems to be totally absent. But is G-d there, behind the scenes, making sure that the king owes a favor to Mordechai, and that Esther wins the beauty contest? Or does the story celebrate human actions, our ability to solve problems, our responsibility to defend ourselves without relying on miracles? Either way, the holiday gives us something to celebrate. And things to think about.