Purim's Message of Unity
Purim has romance, suspense, intrigue, and a message about the redemptive power of Jewish solidarity.
One of my favorite moments of the Jewish year occurs on the night of Purim, a chapter and four verses into the Megillah reading. Achashverosh, the king of Persia, has been presented, his queen Vashti has come and gone, and Mordechai is about to be introduced. The text of the scroll itself indicates a pause, seeming to draw attention to what follows. The reader traditionally stops, anticipation fills the momentary silence, and then the congregation reads aloud: "Ish Yehudi
. . .," "A Jewish man..." The collective "sh" sounds softly emphatic.
Most years we arrive at this moment in a jumble of emotions. Those who have observed that day's fast of Ta'anit Esther feel the effects associated with the lack of food and drink: hunger, thirst, headache, and fatigue. And yet, an almost palpable giddiness suffuses the air: Purim is here, and we will soon be eating and celebrating. Some may already be in costume;gragers
[noise-makers] are poised, awaiting Haman's first mention.
Each Jewish holiday has distinctive qualities and elicits equally distinctive responses from its celebrants. For reasons I have never fully understood, I have found Purim a particular challenge. It's not the Megillah story; somehow, it always retains its suspense and poignancy. But the revelry and the getups discomfit me, although since becoming a father I can access Purim better through the unbridled delight my sons take in the costumes and commotion. But at this juncture, that all lies ahead. Right now the moment is breathless.
By nature I am uncomfortable in the spotlight, but I am a ba'al koreh, a congregational reader, and it is primarily through chanting the Megillah that I experience Purim. Many aspects of the weekly Torah-chanting are exaggerated in the Megillah: the listeners are more attentive; the verses are longer; and the cantillation sounds more dramatized, sentences cascading up and down, subtle shifts between major and minor keys, from the Esther tune to echoes of Eichah, the book of Lamentations. At no other time of the year, arguably, does the performer of a Jewish ritual have so much attention focused on him. Standing at the bimah [speaker's platform], I feel the power of the congregation hanging (pardon the pun) on every word of the narrative.
It is at this point "Ish Yehudi
..." that I most acutely feel the mood of the Megillah, of the holiday itself. Rashi remarks that Mordechai is referred to as a Yehudi because he was among those who were taken captive together with the Judean royalty, who then became known asYehudim