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At first glance, Purim appears to be a Jewish Mardi Gras–a day of raucous humor, irreverence, and revelry. In fact, at its core, Purim grapples with deep and even troubling themes.
The Jewish calendar highlights the eternal struggle between good and evil as Purim approaches. It is taught that from the first day of the month of Adar in anticipation of Purim “joy is multiplied” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 29a). Even so, the Torah reading on the Shabbat immediately following the beginning of this joyful cycle (Parashat Zachor) enshrines the memory of Amalek, destined since biblical times to strike at the Jewish people in every generation.
In its paradoxical style, the Book of Esther does not settle for a simple narrative of the Jews under the leadership of Mordecai and Esther–descendants of the same King Saul who failed to eliminate the threat of Amalek previously (1 Samuel 15:1-38)–outwitting Amalek’s genocidal descendant Haman. Even though the “good” Jews are clear winners over “evil” Haman, deeper engagement with this narrative actually inspires the much more complex and profound theological question of whether blind fate or the hidden hand of God holds humanity in its sway.
The Hebrew word purim is the plural form of pur, meaning lot. In the Book of Esther, the “luck of the draw” prevails and God is notably absent. Although it is one of the two biblical books that do not refer directly to God, a midrashic reading of its heroine’s name “Esther” recalls the divine vow “haster astir panai,” or “I [God] surely will hide My face.” More important for the Jewish acceptance of the holiness of the book is Mordecai’s reference to help coming “from another place” (Esther 4:14), which Jewish tradition interprets as an oblique reference to God. Ultimately, however, it is the book’s giving of hope to an oppressed and scattered people that they will prevail, no matter how desperate their circumstances, that has made the Book of Esther so beloved in the Jewish community.
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