Purim lessons bar and bat mitzvah students might overlook

Peering deeper into Purim

for The Brooklyn Paper
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The holiday of Purim may be best known for costumes, noise, and more noise, but the story that we read with those familiar and beloved characters can teach all of us — especially bar and bat mitzvah kids — some new perspectives on what it means to be Jewish.

You probably think you know the story of Esther very well. Sure, it’s your typical girl-meets-king, hero-foils-villain kind of story. If you didn’t look too deeply, you would think it was just another in a long line of episodes where the villain-du-jour seeks to do away with the Jewish people and is ultimately defeated. Now let’s eat!

Instead, let’s look at some often overlooked details of the story, and what younger teens might want to think about:

King Achashverosh’s first wife, Vashti, was banished from the kingdom for daring to refuse the King’s order.

The story opens on the King and all of his guy friends having a giant party. The King orders Vashti to come out and show off her beauty in front of everyone. She thinks this is demeaning and refuses. The King’s friends urge him to punish her. (It’s unclear whether he would have done so otherwise.) That way everyone in the kingdom will know that all women better listen to their husbands, or else.

That’s a pretty bold statement about the power of feminism and equality. Was Vashti right to say no? Are there times when it’s appropriate to refuse an order from someone in power regardless of the circumstances or consequences?

Mordechai might have brought on the whole mess himself.

Haman had such a big ego and thought he was so important, he required everyone to bow their heads down whenever he passed. Mordechai refused, thinking that only God deserved such treatment. But there’s nothing prohibited about showing respect for another person, even if he’s conceited and obnoxious. Perhaps if Mordechai had swallowed his pride a little, Haman would never have decided to wipe out all the Jews in the first place.

So when is it OK to speak up and stand up for yourself or other Jews? Are there situations when you might be better advised to stay quiet? Where do you draw the line between being a proud Jew and staying in the background?

Mordechai tells Esther to keep her religion a secret from her new husband, King Achashverosh.

Sure, we know how the story plays out. Esther doesn’t say anything about being Jewish until the exact right moment when she lays a trap for Haman. But it’s also pretty clear that Mordechai entered her in that giant beauty contest and happily supported her marriage to the King by hiding her religion.

Is there ever a time when you feel embarrassed about being Jewish? Would you even lie about your religion if you felt it might benefit you in some way? Even though the story of Purim has a happy ending, was it moral for Mordechai to tell Esther to hide being Jewish?

And speaking of endings …

When the King tells the Jews that they may defend themselves against Haman’s followers, they not only do so but end up killing about 75,000 more people in the process.

Even though Haman himself is hanged on the very same gallows that he prepared for Mordechai, his decree that all the Jews are to be killed is still out there. So King Achashverosh declares that the Jews have the right to defend themselves (gee, thanks). In the process, they also kill a ton of people.

This brings up lots of questions about the morality of war — does an army seek to only fight other soldiers or is it fair to kill anyone in an opposing country or tribe? Could the Jews in our story have successfully defended themselves without causing such a huge loss of life?

This Purim, take a fresh look at the Book of Esther and see what new things you and your bar or bat mitzvah kid can discover. If you can hear yourself think, that is.

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