Purim and Jewish Exceptionalism
Our holidays are laden with meaning and themes and Purim is certainly no exception. Purim highlights our relationship with Hashem whose watching eye is upon us even when it isn’t apparent in the depths of galus (exile). He is receptive to our sincere prayer even when all seems lost. There is another theme that should be highlighted as well and that is that we need to understand and appreciate our exceptional status as Jews. Hashem expects us to do this and will force us to appreciate it even if we choose to ignore it.
Let us begin with our nemesis, Amalek, who attacked us a short time after the Exodus. The Midrash (Tanchuma Ki Taitzai) explains that although Amalek knew he wouldn’t prevail, he still wanted to blunt the tremendous impression and respect that had been created by the miracles of the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea. His point was that there is nothing special about the Jewish people and that their existence didn’t differ than that of any other nation. When Amalek’s descendent Haman slandered the Jews to Achashverosh, he began with the word “ישנו” which means “there is.” However, the Gemara (Megillah 13b) interprets this word as “they’re asleep.” The Gemara explains that Achashverosh, who was aware of the history of the Jews and their resiliency, feared that there would be serious repercussion from Hashem if he would allow the annihilation of the Jews. Haman reassured him by saying, ”Don’t worry; they’ve fallen asleep in their commitment to mitzvos,” and don’t deserve Hashem’s special protection and favor.
It seems that Haman had something going there. In fact, there really was a decree in heaven against the Jewish people which Haman had tapped into. The Gemara relates that Eliyahui HaNavi told Mordechai that there was a decree of annihilation which was sealed with clay, not with blood. This signified the decree’s reversibility and this knowledge spurred Mordechai to muster the Jews to pray and fast to avert the decree. What misdeed did we do to deserve this decree? In Megillah (12a), the Gemara tells us that one of the Jewish failures that brought on the decree was the fact that we enjoyed the feast that Achashverosh threw as described in the opening scene of the Megillah. Another cause for the decree is that we had bowed to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue during the Babylonian exile which preceded the story of Purim. It is interesting that the Gemara (Sanhedrin 93a) says that when the three Jewish heroes – חנניה, מישאל, ועזריה – who did defy Nebuchadnezzar and refused to bow to his image, emerged from the furnace, the other nations said to the Jews, “You have such a mighty G-D and yet you bow to a statue?” The Jews were shown that they are different and that much more is expected of them. This inability to feel proud and strong as Jews was obvious both when they agreed to capitulate to Nebuchadnezzar and when they joined Achashverosh’s feast.
When we don’t believe in ourselves and understand our specialness, Hashem will confront us with this reality. We celebrate Purim as a reminder that we rejoice in Hashem’s closeness with all of its attendant responsibilities. We must raise our children with this proud tradition and sense of responsibility by showing them that we look at all of our interactions with the world around us through the Torah lens.