Purim is the Jewish equivalent of Mardi Gras, when pre-modern Christians closed out the carnival season by dressing up in costume, overeating and overdrinking, and parading around in a demonstration of the world turned upside down. For their part, Jews also dressed up in costume and overate and overdrank, to celebrate a holiday that’s all about turning the tables on your oppressors.
An intrepid young queen intercedes with her husband to prevent the unjust destruction of her people. What could have been more fabulous than that, for the hard-pressed Jewish communities of the Diaspora?
Under the circumstances, it is possible to forgive our pre-modern forebears for enjoying the denouement, when the Jews of Persia, taking advantage of the king’s permission, kill 76,000 of their enemies before declaring a holiday for feasting and gladness. But in later times, this has proven disturbing.
“There is no fighting, but just as there was to have been a massacre of unresisting Jews, so now there is a massacre of unresisting Gentiles,” wrote the prominent Anglo-Jewish scholar and philanthropist Claude Montefiore. Had the Bible omitted the book, he concluded, “it would have gained rather than lost in religious value and moral worth.”
Today, we Jews still have our enemies, but we also have a powerful state of our own, and many resources. As we look around an unquestionably threatening world, we must not yield to the temptation to see ourselves as the beleaguered people portrayed in the Book of Esther. And we must be careful to resist the revenge fantasies it once instilled.