Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
Photo: Rabbi Haim Richman

A lesson for Purim

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz discusses the joy of Purim and its connection to anti-Semitism

Purim is the most unusual Jewish holiday. When it comes to all other holidays, although being joyful is a mitzvah, they also feature a serious side, and the joy has limits and restrictions. On the other hand, in Purim, even if we strictly follow all the rules pertaining to the holiday, it features a certain aspect that is not only about good humor, but also about mischief, and at times even rowdiness.


This is a puzzling matter, as the celebration of Purim followed a difficult and highly threatening period. During most generations, the people of Israel faced threats, wars, and enemies, yet most of these incidents were no different than the clashes and wars experienced by all other nations. However, the event that took place before Purim was essentially different and much graver, as this was no war, but rather, a plan to exterminate a people.


It was the first display of anti-Semitism in history. Haman and all his collaborators were indeed defeated, yet over the generations we discovered that anti-Semitism may have started with Haman, but it did not end with him. Amalek’s seed is still in the world, and it flourishes even in our cosmopolitan and enlightened era.


Over the years, many explanations and “justifications” were given to anti-Semitism: Religious ones, racial ones, and cultural ones. The fact such explanations are so numerous proves there is no truth to them and that they merely serve as a veneer for a more basic and hidden matter. That is, just like the existence of the people of Israel, despite all the suffering and distress, is an inexplicable mystery, anti-Semitism is also very mysterious.


As anti-Semitism is irrational in essence, we may be able to defend ourselves against it but we have no way of uprooting it. Jewish attempts in the last hundreds of years to resolve the problem using opposite means – extreme assimilation on the one hand, and the establishment of an independent state on the other hand – did not resolve the problem, but rather, merely changed or diverted it to other avenues.


Power of laughter

The conclusion of this is that we only have two possible responses. First, we can do our best, as was done in the days of Esther and in other generations, to defend ourselves against evil and fight it. This needs to be done in any case, even if only to gain a respite from the outbreaks of hatred.


The second possibility is to laugh. Laugh not only about the defeat of our enemies’, but also about the absurdity, ridiculousness, and inherent contradictions of anti-Semitism. The laughter does not mean that there is an answer, yet this is our way of declaring that we have removed ourselves from the irrational interaction of hating Haman. We laugh at Haman, Ahasuerus, and all their successors, because after all we shall prevail and stick around, and they shall become the subject of jokes.


Just like everything else in Judaism, joy should be expressed with actions. We therefore express our joy not only with high spirits, but also with the serious actions in the wake of the laughter. Indeed, immediately after Purim, we start the 30 days of preparations for Passover, where we clean the hametz in order to clear everything that is not us, thereby polishing our own essence, which does not belong to “them,” but rather, to “He who chose us from all the nations.”


פרסום ראשון: 03.10.09, 13:16
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