The timing of Monday’s suicide bombing in Tel Aviv could not have been more striking.
It was the day before Purim, the Jewish calendar’s most passionately joyous holiday, when for the fourth time in nine days a Palestinian suicide bomber aligned with the fundamentalist Hamas destroyed the lives of innocents.
There are remarkable parallels between the recent horrifying events in Israel and the story of Purim.
The Purim narrative, like all good mythical and biblical sagas, is full of tensions – between evil and justice, hope and despair, death and life, victimization and vengeance, suffering and redemption.
Recent experiences between Jews and Hamas-linked Palestinians are full of precisely those same tensions – between hope for the possibility of peace and the despair of recently losing scores of members of the Jewish people to the murderous hatred.
“Purim is a holiday in which you have to look carefully to find God, since God isn’t mentioned in the Megillah (Book of Esther),” said Rabbi David Wolpe, a lecturer in Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
“Clearly this is a time when a lot of Jews have to look quite carefully to find God.”
The Book of Esther tells the tale of Human, the prime minister of the ancient Persian city of Shushan, who was bent on murdering all its Jewish citizens. He was a direct descendent of Amalek, the man who is the very embodiment of evil and the biblical archetype of all persecutors of Jews.
One of Shushan’s Jews, Mordechali, learned of Haman’s plans and convinced his cousin Esther to join him in trying to avert them. She agreed to become part of the king’s harem so that she would have a chance to talk King Ahasuerus into helping.
In the end, Esther and Mordechai save their community from Haman’s murderous plans, and Haman and his 10 sons are hanged on the gallows they had erected for the Jews.
The story of Purim really begins the Shabbat before, with a special Torah reading, a cautionary tale to Jews in their own land given to them by God. The reading ends with a commandment to never forget that Amalek, the enemy, always surrounds us.
Given what happened in Tel Aviv the day before the holiday, “there’s an incredible irony that the whole Purim story is about a continual battle against enemies and evil,” said Rabbi Daniel Gordis, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
“It’s a paradox that we want to wipe out the names of our enemies and we tell our children to do that by sounding groggers at the mention of Haman’s name,” Wolpe said.
“The result is that the names of Mordechai and Esther go by without anyone noticing, but the name of Haman we pay tremendous attention to your enemies.”
But what is the proper way to pay “tremendous attention” to one’s enemies? Is it the way that Baruch Goldstein did when he murdered 29 Palestinians on Purim in 1994?
In a section that gets little attention in many contemporary Purim celebrations, the Jews of Shushan are full of revenge.
After they are saved, they go out and kill 75,000 of their persecutors, presumably Haman’s army troops.
When Goldstein chose the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the ancient city of Hebron as the place he would go to kill Palestinians, he elected a site layered with religious, psychological and political meaning.
The tomb is where Isaac – a father of the Jewish people – and Ishmael – regarded as the father of the Arab peoples – came together after the rupture in their relationship in order to bury their father, Abraham.
One of the central themes of Purim can be found in the name of the holiday. Purim, a Hebrew word meaning “lots,” refers to the way that Haman decided in which month he would conduct the slaughter.
“Lots are totally random, and there is something horrendously random about” the way the Hamas suicide bombers do their work, Gordis said.
Although Esther and Mordechai ultimately triumph over Haman, and Shushan’s Jews are redeemed from their death sentences, the drams often seems too close to call.
And there have been a number of other strikingly close calls for Jews on Purim, the 14th of Adar, throughout Jewish history.
In 1991, Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles stopped raining on Israel, and Jews there finally got to take off their gas masks and come out of their sealed rooms.
On Purim in the year 1574, the Jews of Thrace – a region now covered by parts of Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey – were saved from extermination, as were the Jews of Rhodes in 1840.
On Purim in 1632 the Jews of Ragusa, Italy, were saved from the accusation of blood libel. On the same data in 1833, in Trieste, Italy, a leading Jew-baiter died, as did a persecutor of Jews named Count Aginskly, on the same date in 1863, in Ritova, Lithuania.
In some instances, Jewish vengeance against enemies was carried out by other parties.
For instance, it was Purim 1946 that the Nazias found guilty during the Nuremberg trails were put to death.
Eleven men were sentenced to death, but one, Herman Goering, committed suicide before he could he hanged.
As the 10 Nazis – like Haman’s 10 sons – went to their deaths, one of them, Julius Streicher shouted out, “Purimfest!”
Is there some metaphysical connection between Purim and important events in Jewish history, between the Jewish role in the Purim story and subsequent occurrences?
“Predicting or interpreting particular events that way can be tricky and misleading because we can’t decipher the divine tea leaves,” said Rabbi Meir Fund, the charismatic spiritual leader of the Flatbush Minyan in Brooklyn and a teacher of Jewish mysticism.
“It’s very hard to decipher spiritual cause and effect,” Fund said.
The model of Jewish vengeance presented by the Purim story is also a difficult one to tackle.
“The line between being Mordechai defending your community, and being Amalek and Haman, destroying others, is a line that everybody’s really got to examine,” said Robbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, which is part of Aleph: The Center for Jewish Renewal, based near Philadelphia.
People “have to struggle with the Amalek within and without,” he said.