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Megillah.jpgIsrael News Photo: Jewish Press

The popularity of Purim is wildfire. Spiels, deals, meals … all are part of the celebration. You can’t visualise the year without it.

But it was nearly squeezed out of the calendar more than once and there were times when it was in danger of being abolished, sanitised and (probably worst of all) completely ignored.

What saved Purim and strengthened its hold is, perhaps paradoxically, antisemitism. The more that Jews were persecuted, the more they needed a light-hearted response, and Purim provided the answer.

The Purim story is not the same as the story of Purim. The Purim story is the narrative of the weak-kneed king, the villainous Haman and Zeresh, the heroic Mordechai and Esther.

The story of Purim is something different – the rise and fall of the festival, its rejection and rehabilitation. It took great effort before the Book of Esther was admitted to the scriptural canon. A Biblical Book that doesn’t mention God? Events that ignore Eretz Yisra’el? Preposterous, some say!

Every now and then the scholars even question its historicity – maybe the events never happened, maybe Mordechai and Esther never were, maybe it’s just fiction, maybe it’s a folk tale that was judaised to save it from being jettisoned!

Graetz thought it was invented in Maccabean times to raise the morale of the Jewish people. Julius Lewy thought it chronicled a foreign colony in the Persian realm. Others noted that ancient peoples celebrated the end of winter with fables about their gods.

The Jews themselves valued the day so much that by the time of the Mishnah it was part of halakhah. Haman was seen as the embodiment of Amalek, a sign that humanity must always guard against the Amalek-spirit.

Folk frolics crept in, with a tug-of-war between dignity and indecorum. Christians thought that Jews who noisily blotted out the name of Haman and hung Purim effigies were symbolically attacking Jesus. Cecil Roth thought this was the origin of the medieval blood libels. The Jews themselves derived comfort from the thought that Purim proved that God would never let them down.

There are serious adult themes on Purim – God’s protecting hand, the heroism of dedicated individuals, the complexity of the "dual loyalty" theory, the psychology of the victim who says "gam zeh ya’avor" ("This too will pass!"), and the women’s contribution to Jewish survival.

Immanuel Lewy said, "Haman denounces Mordechai as morally inferior, because in reality he fears his moral superiority". We constantly find new fascination in the political machinations and palace intrigues of the story.

Jews depressed about antisemitism can always find hope in the Talmudic view that descendants of Haman learnt Torah in B’nei B’rak (Gittin 57b, Sanh. 69b).

Purim has a future; the rabbis said that even in messianic times there will be a Purim. There will be no more sorrow, but it will always be possible to laugh.

Additional Torah writings for Tzav, the coming Shabbat parasha:



A MENIAL TASK?

The Torah reading begins with a short one-word command, "Tzav" – "Command!" God tells Moses to command Aaron and his sons about clearing out the residue of the ashes on the altar.

How menial it seems! How can such petty detail be required of the priestly family? Moses complains to God (Vayikra Rabbah 7:1) and is told that this is a way of coming close to the Almighty.

Jump across the centuries and you find people telling the rabbi how menial all the detailed mitzvot are. There are such great ideas in Judaism, and here you have what some people can only call pettifogging detail – koshering chickens, clearing out the chametz, not turning on the lights on Shabbat…

Complain to the Almighty if you must, and what He tells you is that little things add up and make the daily observance of Judaism an engaging experience and a series of steps up the spiritual ladder.


RIGHT OR LEFT

The final sentence of the sidra (Lev. 8:36) tells us that Aaron and his sons carried out what God had commanded, turning (as Rashi informs us) neither to the right or the left.

These days "right" and "left" have a political connotation. Not just in global or national politics but religious politics too. Whoever and wherever you are on the spectrum you tend to think that it is the others who are going too far to the right or too far to the left, becoming too extreme in their orthodoxy or too extreme in their unorthodoxy.

Actually what is going on is an attempt to assess which position is right in your own situation. That does not necessarily mean that either you or others must be wrong, only that you or they are a thinking person whose opinions are in process of formation.


THE HIGHEST PRINCIPLE

Some synagogue-goers are full of complaints at this time of the year.

While the latter part of Sh’mot is read they have to listen to constant detail about the architecture and building of the Tabernacle. Then they get all the laws about the sacrificial rite and the priesthood.

Where is the spirituality? Where is the poetry? Where are the ethics?

Ask those who complain what they would prefer to hear about. Their answer might possibly be, "Shema Yisra’el" – "Hear, O Israel, HaShem is our God, HaShem is One!" (Deut. 6:4). Or perhaps, "V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha" – "Love your neighbour as yourself!" (Lev. 19:18).

This sounds like an echo of a Midrashic discussion where Ben Azzai said, "To me the most important passage in the Torah is 'Shema Yisra’el'", and Ben Nannes said, "I have found an even more important passage, 'V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha'".

Ben Pazzi, however, suggested something quite different: "Et hakeves echad ta’aseh baboker v’et hakeves hasheni ta’aseh bein ha’arbayim" – "You shall offer one lamb in the morning and the second lamb at dusk" (Ex. 29:39).

The views of Ben Azzai and Ben Nannes will appeal to today’s complainers. The Shema is the spiritual foundation of Judaism. Loving your neighbour is the basis of our ethics. But the third view? We are back to the question, "Where is the spirituality? Where is the poetry? Where are the ethics?"

Ben Pazzi cannot be joking. The Midrashic discussion is too serious-minded for that. So whatever can he mean when he says he finds such inspiration in a verse that gives technical details about the daily sacrifices?

He is affirming that both the Shema and the love of neighbour are indispensable in Judaism, but in order to be able to love God as required in the Shema and to love human beings in the spirit of "V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha", we have to be willing to make an effort, to make a sacrifice – not just once or twice in one’s life, but every day, morning, afternoon and evening.

What costs us little is worth little.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs athttp://www.oztorah.com