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Friends in High Places: The Jewish Story of Purim

03/02/2015 05:12 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2015

There is a certain irony in the media and political furor about the upcoming speech of the Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, to the U.S. Congress. His visit falls just before the Jewish holiday of Purim, a "minor" Jewish holiday in that it does not involve cessation of work like Rosh Hashanah or Passover, but widely observed nonetheless. The irony is that Purim commemorates a historic time of great threat to a Jewish community in the Middle East, in which it appeared that Jewish lives depended on the relationship of Jewish leaders to the powerful forces in the kingdom.

The story as handed down appears in the biblical Book of Esther. The setting was ancient Persia, probably 2400 years ago. The Jewish minority was well assimilated, but viciously hated by some, including a powerful minister of state named Haman. This minister, by vilifying the Jews, induced the king to decree a national pogrom on a date chosen by lot (purim means "lots"). Fear gripped the Jewish community, as there seemed no way out. However, Queen Esther -- the favorite in the king's harem -- was, unbeknownst to anyone, a Jew. The king ruled with the arbitrariness of a despot, so even she was afraid to approach him. Ultimately, however, her plea for mercy turned the tables on Haman and saved her people.

This story is read on Purim in the synagogues, with much humorous mockery of Haman, and a festive meal celebrates the salvation of the people in ancient times. Our point of interest here, however, is what the story suggests about the relationship of the Jews as a people to the powers of the world.

Jews are not the only minority whose very lives have historically depended on the favor of a king; nor is contemporary Israel the only nation that is threatened by violent enemies. But the Purim story embodies an archetypal dimension, repeated in Jewish history as well as that of other peoples: How easily the pendulum of power can swing from favor to displeasure, based on the whims of a few or the winds of political change! Shifting alliances, economic disruption, and rumors of war can lead to changes of policy which overturn thousands of individual lives. Add to that the fanning of flames of prejudice, and a whole society can be poisoned.

Despite the advance of democracies in which the rights of minorities are protected by law, world affairs still teeter on a fragile foundation. Weaker or smaller nations are still vulnerable (look at Ukraine). Minorities are punished within and among nations (Coptic Christians, just for a starter), and many groups long for independence (Kurds, Tibetans and others). In establishing the state of Israel, Jews achieved, with the help of other nations, a goal that seemed impossible for nearly 2000 years; but threats still loom.

The Purim story illustrates the pendulum; but it also points to two things that went beyond the vagaries of power.

One was relationships. Esther was virtuous and devoted, trusted by the king. Her cousin Mordecai had shown loyalty to the king by reporting an assassination plot. Friends in high places, yes; but It was not power or money that bought leverage, but trust. This is an ongoing theme in Jewish history as well: the heroic individuals who saved Jews in the dark days of the Holocaust often did so because of prior relationships of trust and caring. So too, in a genuinely pluralistic and democratic society, relationships can be built across boundaries. The more we build relationships, the safer minorities and weaker peoples will be. One could argue that the current immigration debate is greatly influenced by the relationships Americans have to their gardeners and housekeepers, and their children's relationships to friends from immigrant families.

It's worth noting that Israel commits enormous resources to this. Despite living in a society under daily threat, Israeli doctors treat all patients equally, including their enemies. Israeli teams of experts have been among the first to respond to disasters (when allowed in by host countries) such as the tsunami in Indonesia or the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Their expertise was gained, sadly, in responding to suicide bombings and battles; but they now use it for the good of all. Israel sends technicians to African countries to help them improve crop production and water conservation. There are now groups of U.S. veterans with PTSD who have Israeli partners. Not only did they receive education and support from group training in Israel; but each person has an Israeli counterpart whom they can call in the middle of the night with a flashback or night terror - because their Israeli partner is awake on the other side of the world. (What if a Ukrainian teenager could call a friend in the USA when awakened by the sound of bombs on the outskirts of her city?)

The second point from the Purim story is courage. Despite her relationship to the king, it took great courage for Esther to oppose the king's powerful minister, and to present the king with an either/or choice that could easily have gone the other way. She could have been humiliated, imprisoned, killed. No one could have predicted the outcome.

Is this about religion? The Book of Esther contains no mention of the name of God. Esther does fast and enjoins her people to fast with her. Mordecai sits at the city gate in sackcloth, a sign of penance. Yet there is no appearance of divine revelation or intervention. In retrospect, one might claim that things worked out according to a higher plan, a divine timing. But the Purim story is humanist, a world in which God's face is hidden. Hester panim, a Hebrew phrase meaning the hiding of the face, is said to hint at the name Esther. Mordecai says to her, "Who knows?" Who knows what can happen? We only know that we may be called to act decisively for the good.

Appropriately enough, we celebrate Purim by building relationships. The two rabbinic commandments associated with Purim day, which falls this year on March 5, are giving charity to the poor and sharing food with friends. However important it may seem to have friends in power, the greater work is to build bonds with one another.