Despite Brussels, we must celebrate Purim this year

It doesn't seem right to celebrate Purim today. 

On Tuesday we were rocked by events in Brussels. At least 31 people are known to have died. With dozens more critically ill, the figure will only rise. Purim celebrations have been cancelled in the Belgian capital. The Jewish community has been asked by the police to avoid dressing up, one of the festival’s traditional customs, to avoid confusion on the streets.

Just a few days earlier a similar atrocity was carried out in Istanbul. 5 people were murdered there including an Israeli. 11 other Israelis were wounded. An investigation is under way to see if they were deliberately targeted.

The refugee crisis shows no sign of abating. Although it’s disappeared from the headlines for now, thousands of people are still on the move, forced from their homes by war and persecution. Whatever your view of EU foreign policy, many people are in desperate need of support.

With all this going on, it might seem natural to question whether we should be celebrating today. But Purim teaches us that sometimes we need to do the opposite of what seems right.

We see this message twice in short succession in chapter 4 of the Book of Esther. Esther, one of King Achashverosh’s many concubines, is encouraged by her uncle Mordechai to visit the king and tell him of the plot to exterminate the Jews. Esther is nervous: she has kept her Jewish identity hidden and she has not been called to the king for more than 30 days suggesting she has fallen out of favour with him. An unsolicited approach could bring the death penalty. Mordechai encourages her with both a threat and a reassurance.

“Don’t think that you will escape the plot just because you are living in the palace, any more than the other Jews will...You will perish...And who knows whether the reason you were brought to live in the palace was to be in this very place at this very time?” (Esther 4:13-14)

Mordechai encourages Esther to seize the moment and do the opposite of what she thinks she should do.

Esther agrees and immediately comes up with her own unusual course of action: she tells Mordechai to gather all of the Jews present in Shushan and fast with her for three days and nights in preparation for her visit to the king. According to tradition, day three fell on Passover when they should have been celebrating their freedom with a Seder night meal. Instead, they fasted. Again, they needed to do the opposite of what seemed right.

Esther was rewarded: the king agreed to her request and set in motion a change of events that meant the Jews would be spared.

It may seem wrong to be celebrating today. But to not do so means letting evil win. As ever with Jewish festivals, our celebration is not complete without recognising that there are those less fortunate than ourselves. As well as being commanded to have a festive meal and give gifts of food to our friends, we are also commanded to give charitable donations to those in need – whether Jewish or non-Jewish.

Viewed this way, Purim is a particularly Jewish way of responding to recent tragic events.

Richard Verber is World Jewish Relief's Head of External Affairs - richard@worldjewishrelief.org

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