WITH A MIGHTY HAND AND
AN OUTSTRETCHED ARM
If you read Newsday, you’re probably familiar with their “Asking the Clergy” column that appears on Sundays. I was honored to be asked to answer the question, “What can children learn from celebrating Purim?” Many answers came to mind, some positive lessons and some not so positive lessons. From a positive standpoint, through the sending of food gifts to family and friends, called Mishloach manot, or colloquially, “Shalach Manos,” and the mitzvah of Matanot L’evyonim, giving gifts of tzedakah for the poor, we teach our children to share what we have with others, and to help take care of those less fortunate. The mitzvah of hearing the reading of Megillat Esther gives us an opportunity each year to hear the story with new ears, bringing new life into an ancient text.
We dress up in costumes on Purim and make fun of people in power, and it has long been traditional in some communities to drink enough liquor so that one can’t tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman. While it’s helpful for children to see grown-ups having a good time and being silly, we need to make sure that they see “responsible silliness.” Addiction is a very real problem in the Jewish community, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, and it’s important for adults to model proper behavior.
What I said in my 250 words for Newsday was that Purim is about empowerment. It’s about finding the inner strength and fortitude to act, even if standing up for something important is uncomfortable or might have negative consequences. When Queen Vashti refused to parade (presumably) naked before several hundred of the king’s closest friends, she was banished from the kingdom. Esther risked her life when she visited King Achashverosh without an invitation in order to plead for the life of the kingdom’s Jewish community. Esther’s uncle Mordechai, who overheard two palace guards plotting to kill the king, was perhaps the ancient example of “If you see something, say something.”
One month after Purim, we celebrate Passover, and what a difference in the message! Passover is also about redemption and being saved, but the mechanisms by which these redemptions come about is completely opposite. In Megillat Esther, there is NO mention of God! Humans act on their own; they don’t wait for a sign from God or for the cavalry to arrive. God’s presence is certainly implied in the story, but the power and ability to act are given to the people. And while Moses figures quite prominently in the Torah and the Passover story, his name is completely absent from the traditional haggadah – it was GOD who brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
There’s a Kabbalistic concept set forth by Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) called tzimtzum, which means “contraction,” or “constriction,” and according to this, God began the process of creation by “contracting” God’s Infinite light in order to allow space for everything that’s finite–such as people–to exist. By making space for humanity, God empowers us with the ability to act. As God’s partners in creation, may we approach the Passover season and beyond with a renewed commitment to making the world a better place.
Rabbi Susan Elkodsi