The Talmud teaches that we should reach the Megillah in a language that we understand. In the coming weeks, synagogues around the world, from Honolulu to Haifa, will share the epic story of Megillat Esther, the scroll of Esther, recounting one of the greatest Jewish tales of all time. Many will read it in Hebrew, but it will also be recounted in everything from French to Italian, Spanish to Japanese.
The great sages of our tradition recognized then what we see today: The Purim story knows no bounds. It transcends place and time, resonating throughout the ages. Its themes actually seem designed to help all of us, no matter where we come from or what we believe. Think about it: Here we have the story of a lone heroine, misunderstood, mistreated, who, with her family’s support, stands up to a tyrannical regime in the name of her own religious beliefs, as well as a broader level of freedom and tolerance.
For me, Esther is one of the great figures of our collective story. She is brave when others are unwilling to be brave. She is a proud Jew when others are less eager to display their Judaism. She finds her life’s purpose as she speaks out in the name of social change. When she implores King Ahasuerus, “Let dispatches be written countermanding those which were written by Haman,” we feel her urging the course of history from cynicism toward love.
And, yet, there is a darker side to the Esther story, too. She becomes the face of the Jewish people, even against her will, through time. Indeed, would-be anti-Semites would declare her the prototypical Jew, harshly condemning her resolve, her intelligence, her rise to power, even her very survival. Tractate Megillah of the Talmud presents a fictional account of Esther imploring the sages NOT to record her story, for “such an act would cause ill will against us among the nations of the world.”
Esther’s sentiments ring true not only in large swaths of the Middle East today, but also on college campuses and other places where anti-Semitism sadly rears its ugly head. We can almost understand not only Esther, also but many in our own day aiming to hide their Jewish heritage. Perhaps they see it as marking them as “other” or different. Perhaps they fear they will be bullied because they celebrate Chanukah or Passover. Perhaps they have allowed social media to convince them that Israel is something other than a beacon of democracy and opportunity. Perhaps they have come to believe that it would be easier to be like the 99% of the world’s population that is NOT Jewish.
My message this Purim is that we should be proud of our Judaism, even when surrounded by Haman-like vitriol and hateful ideology. While the Purim story has us wear masks, dress up in costume, and spend a day pretending, it ironically encourages us to face head on our own Jewish identity: No masks, no dress up. With the month of Adar, we come out of the hazy winter months to a bright, clear sky, the gift of Judaism, and the beauty of the tradition we inherit.
I am so proud of my Judaism. I love our tradition and our people. Part of my life’s work is to bring others to a place of pride as well. We should be proud of who we are: As Jews, as individuals, as a community. To be a Jew in 2016 is to say like the millions who came before us, from the edges of eastern Europe to the shining shores of Tel Aviv: Hineni. Here I am.
May we continue to feel the great “light and gladness, happiness and honor” that the Scroll of Esther tells us the Jews of Shushan felt when they bid farewell to fear and saw the blessing of their faith, their Torah, and their everlasting relationship with God. s