Living in Norfolk, living in Shushan

by | Mar 11, 2016 | Torah Thought

I know when Purim time comes around that it is a time for joy and silliness —and I enjoy it as much as anybody. However, I also regret that our silliness celebration often masks (pun intended) the fact that Purim is our holiday. What do I mean by that? Purim is the only Biblical holiday that is not centered around the Land of Israel. It takes place in Shushan at a time when it was the capital city of the Persian Empire. Purim is a Diaspora holiday.

And not just any Diaspora. Persia was the America of its day and its Jews sound a lot like us. They appear to be an assimilated population. Even the most righteous and committed Jews, like Mordechai, seem to function just fine in public life— he is welcomed in the palace, accepted as a loyal subject by the king and rewarded for loyalty to the crown like anyone else. A Jew could even rise to the exalted position of queen.

But there’s a catch. Esther becomes queen, but does she let anyone know she is Jewish? No, in her secular life she hides her Judaism. She and Mordechai presume that hiding her Jewish identity will benefit her chances of getting ahead, and perhaps they are right. They even have secular names and Jewish names. Thousands of years ago, Esther and Mordechai, now classic Jewish names, were obviously Persian. And not just Persian, but they probably derive from the Ancient near Eastern Gods Ashtara and Marduk! This all sounds very familiar to me—Rabbi Jeffrey, whose Hebrew name is Moshe Tzvi.

So what are we Jews of modern-day Shushan to learn from our forebears in ancient Shushan? Well, the story seems to validate our Diaspora existence. It seems to tell us that not only is living in America okay, but it is even okay to make compromises in our Jewish identities for our secular lives. However, when push comes to shove, when the community is threatened, when the need is great, we must be Jews first. Though Queen Esther hides her Jewish identity to become queen, when she realizes the danger to the Jewish community, she is willing to risk it all to use her influence to save them. And Mordechai, too, is not afraid to use his high regard with the king to influence what is best for the Jewish community when it is in need.

The message appears to be one of balance. I believe the question of how to balance our Jewish selves and our secular selves remains a challenge to each of us. How “Jewish” will I be, will my activities be, will I look? How much will I wear my Judaism outwardly (a necklace, a kippah, a black hat) or how much do I cover up? Will I take Jewish holidays off from work? Which ones?

The Purim story doesn’t really answer these questions for us, but it challenges us to be mindful about how we are making these decisions. It challenges us to be mindful about our identities as Jews and Americans. Most importantly, this holiday challenges us to remember that however we answer these questions, there are times when it is incumbent upon us to stand up and be counted as Jews, just as Esther and Mordechai did in Shushan so long ago.

As we celebrate Purim with costumes, parties, reading Megilat Esther and who knows what other general silliness, I hope you will take a serious moment or two to reflect on the Purim story, our story. When we are conscious about our definitions, our lines and our masks and why they are where they are, we can experience both our Jewish identity and our American identity with more joy, purpose and meaning.

—Rabbi Jeffrey Arnowitz, Congregation Beth El