December 21, 2014 · 29 Kislev

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Purim: A Social Justice Introduction

Purim is the Jewish holiday celebrated in Adar to celebrate the triumph of the Jews over their oppressors, as told in the book of Esther. Haman, advisor to King Ahashuerus, seeks to destroy the Jews in Shushan and the countryside because Mordecai the Jew refuses to bow down to him. Tricking the king into signing a decree to this effect, Haman sets the date of destruction for the Jews to be the 14th of Adar. Only the Queen, Esther, is able to save the day by coming out of the shadows and revealing her Jewish identity to the King. The King orders Haman executed and tells the Jews of Shushan that they can defend themselves against those that seek their destruction.

The holiday is named after the word "pur," meaning lot or lottery, which refers to the lot that the Jews’ enemy Haman threw to determine the day of their destruction. The strong association of Purim with luck or chance underscores the absurdity of this day; we reflect on how much life and death fall to simple chance and how little control we often have over our own lives. As such, everything is turned “upside down” on Purim: people wear costumes to hide their face and engage in frivolity and enough drinking to prevent them from being able to discern between "Blessed be Mordecai" and "Cursed be Haman" (BT Megillah7b). Congregations read from the Megillah and perform Purim Shpiels in which nothing, not our rabbis, our tradition or ourselves, are held sacred.

Despite this topsy-turvy nature surrounding the holiday, Purim is still a serious holiday with important themes that draw our attention to social issues.

Before the holiday itself, we observe Ta’anit Esther, the fast of Queen Esther, who went without food before seeing the king to save herself and her people. As we go without food for a day, standing in solidarity with our people, we also consider those who do not choose to go without food, those who live with hunger throughout the year. On Purim we are commanded to bring matanot l’evyonim, gifts to the poor, but perhaps we can use Purim to inspire us to greater action to invert a social hierarchy that creates haves and have-nots.

Purim is also a holiday about women. Queen Vashti and Esther are two women in the story who find themselves in positions of vulnerability because of their gender. Just as we admire their courage in standing up for their rights, we also stand for women’s rights, acknowledging that women bear the brunt of the effects of poverty and receive abuse and discrimination.

Finally, Purim is a holiday about an attempted genocide. Though Haman’s plot is foiled, we know that the evils of oppression are never completely defeated. We therefore view Purim as an opportunity to stand up for human rights, as we seek to eradicate genocide from the world.

This social action guide will give individuals, households, congregations, and religious schools resources for incorporating social action into their celebration of Purim. The guide contains text studies, activities, and programs as well as the background information behind the issues they touch on. As we celebrate our freedom to be Jewish and the joy that this identity brings us, we also acknowledge that our relationship with God always commands us to seek and pursue justice.

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