What can adults learn from the Purim story?

Dear Families, 

So many of our Jewish holidays are not for kids! There, I have said it! We want our children to know their heritage and so as we tell the stories, we make sure that they are age-appropriate and that we teach the important lessons even in those “watered-down” versions. But what happens to adults who never hear the real story? And if we don’t hear the “whole” story, we are missing something! This is hard because the real stories can be unsettling and make us question our heroes. Yet we must always remember that heroes, especially our biblical heroes, are not perfect and maybe that is so we realize that each of us has many facets of who we are and how we live our lives. The goal is to keep growing, learning and being willing to change. So this is my article that is not just for the kids but for adults who want our next generation to grow up learning from history.

We are approaching the holiday of Purim, and there are some things we must confront about this fun holiday where we are commanded to get drunk and wear costumes (and maybe knowing the truth is what makes us want to hide). So here are a few things to think about as you read the REAL Megillah:

Vashti probably didn’t head off to an exotic island. We usually think of her being sent away but many think she was possibly beheaded. As many feminists today feel that Vashti is a role model for standing up, was this the best course of action? How do we decide when to stand up and what the consequences might be?

Queen Esther was not chosen for her beauty. The text says this: The voiceless, virginal Esther is delivered (by whom, we’re not told) to the king’s harem. There she spends a year, “six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and feminine cosmetics” (Esther 2:12), under the tutelage of seven court-appointed handmaidens, preparing for a sexual liaison with Ahasuerus. If she fails to win the king’s favor and become the queen, she faces a lifetime sentence as a royal concubine. Definitely not for our kids but, for us, what does that say about Esther?

The end of the story is not a party and it definitely isn’t that they all lived “happily ever after.” Haman, his 10 sons and about 75,000 other people were killed by the Jews of Persia in a revenge-fantasy/surprise ending to the tale. The Jews literally rose up against their oppressors.

Rabbi Sari Laufer from Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles wrote in an article from 2019: “There are plenty of terrible texts in our tradition — texts that challenge the stories we’ve been told, texts that challenge our values, texts that challenge our visions of what Judaism is and should be. From the moment we become a people, though, we are b’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel — the ones who wrestle. We teach our children to question, to explore, to grapple with holding hard truths and competing narratives.

“Underneath and in the midst of the costume parades and funny shpiels, Purim carries with it significant lessons — about sovereignty and oppression, about identity and pride, and about speaking truth to power, even when it is hard and scary. They are lessons for the young and the young at heart, just packaged differently. I do not expect to tell my 3-year-old all the dirty details of the King and his cronies. But us grownups? We can handle it. And nosh some hamantaschen.”

Today, more than ever, these lessons are vital to our survival as Jews and as humans living together. Struggling with ancient texts gives us the space to talk and discuss and then put the lessons into our lives today. Our sages and leaders throughout the generations have discovered lessons for their day in the texts of our Tanakh. We must do the same!

Laura Seymour is Camp director emeritus and Jewish Experiential Learning director at the Aaron Family JCC.

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