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On Purim: Old Story, New Insights

On Purim: Old Story, New Insights

One of the questions we ask ourselves each year when reading the Megillah on Purim is why the dramatic story, otherwise so carefully paced and plotted, has such an anticlimactic ending. Haman has been hung, Esther and Mordechai have been rewarded, and we’re ready to party, yet there are three more chapters to go. Why?

David Fohrman, a rabbi and educator in Woodmere, L.I., explores that and many other questions surrounding the Megillah in a new book, “The Queen You Thought You Knew” (The Hoffberger Foundation for Biblical Studies), which makes for both an easy and psychologically satisfying read.

Among the insights is a timely message for 21st-century Jewry buffeted by challenges, from the increasing isolation of Israel in the international community to bitter strife among Jews, despite our common concern over a diminishing population.

Rabbi Fohrman notes that most of the Jews in Persia at the time of the Esther story were descendants of the tribe of Judah, and a minority from the tribe of Benjamin, including Mordechai and Esther.

The two tribes had a strong, if often adversarial, history, going back to Genesis. But when Benjamin, the youngest of the patriarch Jacob’s sons, was jailed by Joseph for “stealing” a precious chalice, it was Judah who pleaded so eloquently with Joseph on Benjamin’s behalf. Judah argued that their elderly father would not survive the loss of his favored son and insisted he be jailed in place of Benjamin.

Now, centuries later, in the Megillah, we read that Esther, in effect, returns the favor and closes the circle, from the Bible’s first book to its last. It is she, descended from the tribe of Benjamin, who, though out of danger herself, pleads with her husband, the king, risking her life on behalf of the descendants of Judah. She urges the king to allow the Jews to defend themselves against Haman’s decree calling for their destruction.

As Rabbi Fohrman notes, the closing words of the Megillah tell us that Mordechai, echoing Joseph in becoming the second most powerful man at the time, was praised by his fellow Jews, from both Judah and Benjamin, because “he sought their welfare and spoke peacefully to all his children.”

Esther and Mordechai not only saved the Jews from death, but unified them through their own selfless acts.

Somehow it is easier for us to unite against those who would destroy us, like Haman’s ideological successor in modern-day Persia, than to reach out to our fellow Jews with whom we disagree. On Purim we have the opportunity to make amends, to invite others to our special holiday meal, and to recall and duplicate the kindness of Esther and Mordechai and keep the chain of caring going.

Happy Purim.

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