Mar 08 2018

From Shushan Purim to Pesach: A Lesson in Empathy


What a wonderful, raucous Purim we enjoyed on Wednesday night and I trust that your celebration continued on Thursday. You might not be aware that in Jerusalem, and, in Shushan, for that matter, Purim was delayed until Thursday night and Friday. Today was “Shushan Purim,” and you might wonder- why, in these cities, is Purim celebrated on a different day than in the rest of the world?

We find that even in the times of Mordechai and Esther, Purim was celebrated on a different day in Shushan than in the other cities. In all other cities, the battle against the enemies of the Jews took place on the thirteenth of Adar, and the people rested and celebrated on the fourteenth of Adar. In Shushan, however, the battle took place on the thirteenth and fourteenth of Adar, and the people rested and celebrated only on the fifteenth. Thus, it is the custom in ancient, walled cities, to observe Purim one day later than everywhere else. We call it Shushan Purim, commemorating that original battle.

As we struggle to understand and respond to the violence which feels epidemic in our culture, those final chapters of Megillat Esther are particularly disturbing. We all know the basic outline of the story- Haman wants to destroy the Jews, Esther intercedes, Achashverosh backs off, and the Jews are saved. Let’s party. Except. . . For some reason that the Megillah does not identify, the decree that the Jews be destroyed cannot simply be rescinded. Oh, we wanted to kill you but never mind. The pogrom has been cancelled, let’s all be friends.

Instead, circumstances are much darker. In chapter 8 verse 13, we read the king’s amended edict- “The king has permitted the Jews of every city to assemble and fight for their lives; if any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed forces, together with women and children, and plunder their possessions.” “Destroy, massacre, exterminate!” The decree is disseminated throughout the kingdom. We know that Haman’s 10 sons were executed. According to the Megillah, 500 people died in the city of Shushan on the first day and 300 on the second day. In total, per chapter 9 verse 16, 75,000 people were killed in the ensuing battles. There is no explanation for why the king’s decree was not simply rescinded, and no compassion expressed for the victims of this debacle. The only thing we read about is the feasting and merrymaking that followed immediately, and the fact that, since the Jews of Shushan battled for a second day, their celebration was postponed until the 15th of Adar- Shushan Purim. We tend to focus on the lighter side of the events of Purim, yet I think, especially at this time when there is so little compassion for those with different perspectives than our own, that we need to take to heart the lesson that violence is not the answer to hatred.

The Megillah began with Haman’s denunciation of the Jewish people in chapter 3 verse 8- “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws’ and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” Haman’s message is simple- we have zero tolerance for anyone who is not like us and our goal must be to destroy them. Sound familiar? In 2018, we still struggle with understanding and accepting those who are not like us.

If there is anything that we, as Jews, have stood for throughout the centuries, it is tolerance for those who are different. We know that the Torah tells us 36x that we must have one law for the native and the stranger, that we are mandated to stand with and be the voices for the disenfranchised. It is disheartening, to say the least, to read the Megillah’s simple description of violent slaughter, with no commentary, and, in fact coupled with joyous celebration.

By the time we get to Passover, a month from now, the message has changed. The midrash tells us that “At the crossing of the sea, the ministering angels wanted to sing praises to God. But God silenced them, saying, ‘My children are drowning in the sea and you want to sing before me?’”[1] As Jews, we are not a pacifist people and we recognize and support the right of self-defense. Yet, we should never rejoice over the loss of human life. The midrash provides a vital and inspiring counterpoint to Megillat Esther.

Don Isaac Abravanel, who fled Spain in 1492, commented that, “By spilling a drop of wine, from the Pesach cup for each plague, we acknowledge that our own joy is lessened and incomplete. For our redemption had to come by means of the punishment of other human beings. Even though these acts are just punishments for evil acts, it says, “Do not rejoice at the fall of your enemy”. (Proverbs 24:17)”[2]

Pirke Avot suggests that the wise person is the one who learns from everyone. (Pirke Avot 5:1) In this case, I think we can learn from the Megillah what NOT to do. We can and should take to heart the words of Psalm 34 verse 14, “to turn from evil and do good, to seek peace and pursue it”, and to mourn the tragic loss of human life wherever it occurs. Please turn to p. 42 and let’s sing together, reminding ourselves, “Who is the person who desires life? Who loves filled with goodness? The one who guards their tongue from evil and their lips from speaking deceit.   The one who turns from evil and does good, who seeks peace and pursues it.”


[1] [1] Hoffman, Rabbi Lawrence A. and Arnow, David, My People’s Passover Haggadah, Volume One, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008, p. 105


[2] Zion, Noam and Dishon, David, The Family Participation Haggadah: A Different Night, Jerusalem: The Shalom Hartman Institute, 1997, p. 101


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