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Purim: Fact or Fiction

by Rabbi Cantor Marie Betcher

Our joyous and wonderful holiday of Purim is upon us! We are told to eat, drink (especially drink) and be merry! There is a Talmudic statement that says “It is the obligation of each person to be so drunk (during Purim) as not to be able to tell the difference between 'Blessed be Mordechai' and 'Cursed be Haman.'” I remember giving a lecture for Hadassah about Purim and when I spoke about the scholars who question its historicity, a woman gasped in the front row! It was known that Persian kings during that time married from only seven leading families in Persia, therefore our King would not have been able to marry Esther. Some scholars believe that Purim harks back to an ancient pagan festival due to the uncanny resemblance between the names of Mordechai and Esther to Marduk and Ishtar, two important pagan gods of that time. There is such a farcical nature throughout the story such as in the very first chapter when the King and his men decide they needed to ban Queen Vashti for her disobedience to the King so that all the wives in the kingdom would be obedient to their husbands. These facts lean towards Purim not being factual but a wonderful story written to inspire the Jewish people. And, it is a story about a Jewish woman marrying a non-Jew and still rallying for the safety and salvation of the Jewish people. Its messages and sentiments ring as true today as when it was written!

It is traditional that we send Mishloach Manot (gifts of food) to friends. Atanot l'evyonim (gifts to the poor) are given and it is a wonderful addition to any B’Nei Mitzvah project! We give Tzedakah. We bake and eat Hamantaschen! We hear the Megillah (Book of Esther) read and we blot out the name of Haman with our groggers when it is spoken or chanted! It is a fantastic time where everyone is in a “Mardi Gras” mood! In our Religious School, we have an adloyada (parade of everyone in their costumes).

I have been reading with great interest (and total agreement) with our URJ President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs’s articles on reaching out to our interfaith couples and families. In his words “While other voices will surely proclaim that endogamy is the only effective way to have a committed Jewish family, the Reform movement has something altogether different to say: Jewish commitment can be established in a variety of settings, especially with support and increased opportunity for learning and engaging.”

Purim is the perfect time to open our doors and welcome those that might not have felt so comfortable as many do not know the minhag or liturgical melodies. Jews and non-Jews alike, we sing, pray and hear the Megillah read. Our Service starts quietly with the candles being blessed, Light These Lights.

The melodies for the Service in most Temples are altered. Some sing the traditional tefilot to pop tunes or commercial jingles. The Service has an air of lightheartedness and joy. All in anticipation of the Purimshpiel that (in our Shul) comes at the end. There are beautiful traditional songs Ani Purim and Chag Purim (hear music). Hey-man composed by Steven Richards is one of our Religious School’s favorite each year.

When daily stresses and strife take tolls on us, we have the respite of Purim, its customs and foods, and the remembrance of a brave Jewish woman who defends the Jewish people. We are blessed to have an island of time in which we can celebrate and make a joyful noise. Together!

Rabbi Cantor Marie Betcher serves Congregation Shir Ami, Cedar Park, Texas. She is also Cedar Park Police and Fire Chaplain; the only female Rabbi-Cantor in the country serving in this capacity. She was Certified as Invested Cantor by HUC in 1999 and became Ordained as Rabbi in 2011.