Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission Awareness - Education - Inspiration

Finding Esther Within: Purim in the Wake of Genocides

March
9

By THGC Admin

In this entry, Rabbi Brian Strauss of Houston's Congregation Beth Yeshurun shares his insights on inherent tensions between the happiness of Purim and the immeasurable pain of recent genocides. As a guest blogger, he offers his own perspective and does not necessarily speak for the state.

Ask any religious Jewish survivor, what was the most difficult Jewish holiday during their years of captivity?  You would think it would be Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.  Or perhaps Passover, the holiday of freedom. However, they will often tell you the most difficult day of the year was Purim.  This is because they kept asking, where is our Queen Esther?

Purim is one of the most unusual stories in the entire Hebrew Bible.  A man named Haman wants to destroy the Jewish people simply because one Jew (Mordechai) will not bow down to him.  Unfortunately, he has the power to murder all of the Jews because of his status and access to King Achashverosh.  In the end, the Jewish people are saved by Queen Esther, who convinces the King to save her people.  Until that time, she had kept her Judaism a secret. 

Is it Esther that saves the people?  What about God?  As sages have asked for millennia, where is He to be found in the narrative?  The story of Purim is the only text in the Hebrew Bible, except for the Song of Songs, that does not mention the name of God explicitly.  Yet, according to the tradition, God works behind the scenes.  He works through Esther and affects the outcome for the best.   

Mindful of that tradition, some people may now be inclined to ask, why did God wait so long during the Holocaust? Yes, eventually, the allies defeated the Nazis and liberated the concentration camps.  But that was only after the Germans and their collaborators had murdered millions of innocents. 

Yes, eventually, the allies defeated the Nazis and liberated the concentration camps.  But that was only after the Germans and their collaborators had murdered millions of innocents.

Various religions have offered countless theological explanations for the Holocaust.  Within Judaism, there is the Chasidic view that all which emanates from God is hesed (goodness, kindness) though its understanding may be hidden from our finite perspective.  There is also a longstanding view that the Jews were punished for the majority’s tendency to assimilate and distance themselves from the tradition. But surely these explanations still leave many people with objections. 

Another approach that some people have found more sensible focuses on the longstanding Jewish belief that God gave humankind the freedom to choose.  But the price of free choice is evil.  Man, not God, perpetrated the Holocaust.  God allows us to do bad things, but can also help us to do good things. 

No matter what theological or humanistic interpretations we might as individuals choose to embrace, we are all free to help those in need. Today, while acts of genocide continue in Darfur and other parts of the world, what are we doing to help?  

No matter what theological or humanistic interpretations we might as individuals choose to embrace, we are all free to help those in need. Today, while acts of genocide continue in Darfur and other parts of the world, what are we doing to help?  What are our children doing?  Will we stand by or learn from the examples of Queen Esther and other figures that demonstrated the courage to fight genocide?

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In the 1950 illustration shown above, the esteemed artist, Arthur Szyk, depicts himself alongside the Book of Esther's genocidal Haman, whom he reimagines in Nazi regalia. Commissioner Gregg Philipson of the THGC holds an extensive collection of Szyk's works.  By Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tags: purim book of esther genocide holocaust remembrance

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