Someone once gave the following summary of Jewish holidays: they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat. This certainly seems to have been the case in the Purim story. A plan (between King Achashverosh and his advisor Haman) was made to annihilate the Jews, the plan was thwarted, and Jews since then have made a feast to commemorate it. There’s a general concept in Judaism that things don’t happen in this world without reason and therefore the Talmud asks what terrible thing did the Jews do that they deserved to be destroyed? The author of the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, suggested an answer: they had enjoyed the feast of Achashverosh. Really? Does eating treif (not kosher) food carry a penalty of death? And who said that the food at the banquet wasn’t kosher? The verse explicitly states “the king had instructed the officials of his house to do according to the desire of every man.”There was something there for everyone; a (so to speak) vegetarian table, a glutton free table, a kosher table…something for everyone. That leads us back to the question, what did the Jews of that generation do that was so awful that they deserved to be annihilated.
(Before answering, we must introduce the historical context of the period. The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 5th century BCE and the Jews were exiled (to what is modern day Iraq). This was foretold by the prophet Jerimiah, who was imprisoned by the Jewish king Jehoiakim eighteen years earlier (apparently due to his persistent prophecies of gloom foretelling the fall of Jerusalem). Nevertheless, there was an encouraging conclusion to Jerimiah’s words because he also prophesized that the Jews would return seventy years after the destruction. The Persians eventually defeated the Babylonians and miscalculated the seventy year period and King Achashverosh (the king in the Purim story) made a banquet to celebrate the fact that the Jews would never return to their land. It was this banquet that the Jews attended and enjoyed. )
What did the Jews of that generation do that warranted that they be destroyed? It had nothing to do with eating at the King’s feast;they were (almost) punished for enjoying it. Imagine if Neo-Nazis made a gala celebration to commemorate the Holocaust and even used silver cups previously used by Jews for Kiddush and other Judaica they had stolen during the war. To add to their enjoyment, they force a group of Holocaust survivors to attend and participate in their festivities-and even served them kosher food. What would be the reaction of those unfortunate Jews? Surely they would cry and feel devastated as their old wounds were reopened. Some would even faint as they relive their horrifying experiences. Certainly not one Jew in his right mind would say that (s)he enjoyed the festivities.
However, at Achashverosh’s palace, that’s exactly what happened. The purpose of the party was to commemorate the destruction of the Temple because, according to Achashverosh’s mistaken calculation, that time had already passed and, he believed, the Jews were doomed to remain in exile forever. Therefore, he brought out holy vessels of the Temple and other Temple items to emphasize his point. What should the Jews who attended have done? Cried! Wailed! Fainted! Yet, the Talmud tells us that they actually enjoyed the feast. The Temple meant nothing to them; who needs all that religious stuff anyway? If the Jews could be so cold-blooded and apathetic about what was the centrality of Judaism and the Jewish people, then they had totally assimilated and there was no spark of Judaism left in them. For all intents and purposes they were already dead as a nation. They had bodies but seemingly no souls. The only reason tragedy didn’t occur was because they had realized how far they had drifted and, under Mordechai’s direction, they were able to rectify their gross apathy.
The story is told of a Chassidic Rebbiwho was coming home from shul and was surrounded by many of his Chassidim. It was mid-winter in eastern Europe and the lake was frozen solid. The local Christians were chopping up the ice to make a giant cross for their holidays. To the amazement of the Chassidim, the Rebbi stood there all the while staring intently at what they were doing. Finally, a brave Chassid mustered up the courage to ask the Rebbiwhy he was so interested in the goings on. The Rebbi replied, “I’m standing here and reflecting. This lake could be used as a mikveh (ritual bath), which is able to purify the impure but if it freezes, one can cut it up and build a cross! The same is with a Jew. If he is spiritually warm, then even if he makes mistakes from time to time, he can be awakened and be led to repent but if he has become as cold as ice, and he is apathetic to spirituality, then he is totally lost to Judaism.”
On Purim, we are supposed to “thaw out” from the icicles of indifference which have become a part of our being. It is a day to eat, drink and celebrate our Jewishness by singing songs and not being embarrassed of our Jewish identity or acknowledging G-d in saving us from Haman and all of our enemies throughout our history. Even when we don’t deserve it, G-d always comes through and keeps us alive another generation. It’s a day to explain to our children that, “All who hope in You will not be shamed nor humiliated forever, those taking refuge in You” (from the liturgy “Shoshanas Ya’akov,” recited after the reading of the Megillah and sung with great gusto throughout Purim).
When Jews assimilate, they become ‘frozen’ toward Judaism. What’s the remedy; how does one warm up? We learn about where we come from and instead of being strangers to the Torah, we embrace it as being the document that has been the lifeblood of the Jewish people since our inception. If we want to make sure there will be continuity for Jews we have to be proud of who we are and what we represent. But, we can’t represent Judaism if we don’t know what Judaism represents.