23 March 2024

Purim recalls near-annihilation
and is a chilling warning about
antisemitism and vengeance

A Megillath Ester or Scroll of Esther in the Monastir Synagogue in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Jewish holiday of Purim begins at sunset this evening (23 February 2024) and ends at sunset tomorrow (24 March 2024). Purim literally means ‘lots’ and is sometimes known as the Feast of Lots. This holiday commemorates the Jews being saved from persecution in the ancient Persian Empire, but also remembers the hatred and violence involved.

According to the Book of Esther, the Jewish people in Shushan were threatened by the chief minister Haman, who convinces King Ahasuerus or Xerxes to kill all Jews, because Mordecai, a Jew, had refused to bow down to Haman.

Haman casts lots to decide the date for his plan – the 13th day of Adar. But the Jews are saved by Mordecai’s niece and adopted daughter, the heroic Queen Esther. She married Ahasuerus after he banished Vashti, his first, rebellious wife. When Ahasuerus discovers that Esther is Jewish, he reverses Haman’s decree, and instead of the Jews being killed, Haman, his sons, and thousands of other Persians are killed.

Before reading the Megillah, the person who is to read says the following three blessings:

‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has made us holy through his commandments, and has commanded us about reading the Megillah.

‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.

‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time.’

As the story of Purim is read from Megillat Esther (מגילת אסתר, ‘The Scroll of Esther’), it is a custom for everyone to boo and hiss or to make a loud noise with a rattle, known as a ra’ashan (Hebrew) or grager (Yiddish), every time Haman’s name is repeated. The custom fulfils the obligation to blot out Haman’s name.

It is a mitzvah that Jewish people should eat, drink and be merry at Purim. According to the Talmud, a person is required to drink until they cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai’ … although opinions differ as to exactly how drunk that is.

As the story of Esther is read, synagogues are crowded, the adults wearing their best Sabbath clothes, and the children, and some adults too, dressed up in colourful costumes, funny beards and playful masks. They are entertaining and rowdy occasions on Purim.

Children in particular enjoy dressing up as the characters in the Book of Esther, including King Xerxes, the banished queen Vashti, Queen Esther, her cousin Mordecai and the evil, scheming Haman. In some communities, they still burn an effigy of Haman. So for Jewish communities, Purim is like Hallowe’en, Carnival, Mardi Gras and Guy Fawkes Night … all rolled into one, and usually focussed on children.

Many celebrations of Purim this year have been toned down and muted following the attacks in Israel on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah over five months ago (7 October 2023), the continuing hostage crisis in Israel and Gaza, and the dreadful violence that has continued in Gaza, Israel and on the West Bank.

Many Jewish communities are reluctant to celebrate openly given these circumstances, and are equally reluctant to be seen to celebrate given the rise of public and naked antisemitism, typified by the attack on a house in Hackney earlier this week.

Plans for the first carnival-style Purim parade in Jerusalem in 42 years were modified and altered this week after an outcry from residents, relatives of hostages held in Gaza and others directly affected by the events of 7 October and the war in Gaza war.

Tel Aviv and other cities in Israel have cancelled their popular parades this year out of deference to the families of hostages, evacuees, bereaved families, parents of combat soldiers and a melancholic national mood throughout Israel.

A Megillath Ester or Scroll of Esther in the Jewish Museum in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Purim and Hanukkah are the two Jewish festivals that are not prescribed in Mosaic law. Yet, the story of Xerxes and Esther, Mordecai and Haman, is relevant not only for Jews today. It is also a reminder that there are always people who plan and plot evil on a grand scale, happy to wallow in the misery and deaths of millions, men, women and children.

At first, the story of Purim might appear sombre with its recollection of the near-annihilation. But it is also a story of bravery, courage and salvation, and it is a reminder that antisemitism has deep roots that long predate contemporary experiences.

Esther is a secret Jew, and her story encouraged secret Jews during the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, when Saint Esther emerged as a popular figure among the conversos. Many proclaimed their hidden identity to one another by having domestic shrines to Saint Esther … an insider symbol of resistance to prejudice and persecution.

Later, the story of Purim was an abiding comfort and encouragement to European Jews in the mid-20th century.

On Esther’s request, Purim ‘should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every family, province, and city, and these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants’ (Esther 9: 28).

It is not just a story of courage and action in the face of adversity and the triumph of good over evil; it is not only a holiday and a celebration. Purim is also a startling reminder of how easy it is to turn to feel justified in turning to vengeance, and a chilling warning to future generations that antisemitism will continue to haunt Jews people throughout time.

Esther is a rare biblical text not only because it does not mention God even once – it is a story driven by human agency. It is also unique because it is set in the Diaspora – the events take place in Persia. And it is unusual because a woman becomes the saviour of an oppressed minority, able to summon the courage to move from powerlessness to power.

Since Hamas launched its horrific massacre and hostage-taking on 7 October and Israel retaliated in a brutal, ongoing war, the story of Esther is being read by many as an agonising and troubling story in ways that it has never been read before. For many Jewish people reading the story of Esther this weekend, Haman, Hitler and Hamas are ‘all creepily entwined’, as one commentator has written.

But there is also a disturbing dimension to the story of Esther when it comes to the revenge and vengeance. Not only was Haman executed, but at the request of Esther and with the acquiescence of the king, so were his 10 sons and 500 people in the citadel.

Then Chapter 9 gives the details of a violent episode of state-sanctioned retaliation, when another 75,000 Persian ‘enemies,’ including women and children, were murdered, followed by ‘a day of feasting and gladness’ and rejoiced afterward (Esther 9: 16, 22). The story says that many Persians were so fearful of the newly militarised Jews that they professed to be Jews, too.

For centuries, rabbis and scholars have tried to question or justify this problematic spasm of violence: maybe the death toll was not 75,000; maybe women and children were not killed – even though that was explicitly permitted; maybe all this was necessary self-defence.

However, many scholars today find these rationalisations unsatisfying. Writing in the Los Angeles Times earlier this week (21 March), the Jewish writer Jane Eisner suggests that perhaps Esther 9 may be a warning of the extremes a formerly oppressed people will go to when given a opportunity to exercise political and military might and to retaliate. She says it uncomfortably echoes the Israeli assault on Gaza today, with entire families obliterated, hunger and displacement rampant, thousands of children killed and orphaned, and cities all but destroyed.

Jane Eisner is the former editor in chief of the Forward, a national Jewish news outlet. She asks searching questions this Purim:

Does one trauma justify another?

When does self-defence bleed into revenge?

How is proportionality weighed during what is today an existential crisis for Israelis and Palestinians?

The vengeance sought at Purim is committed by humans and not in God’s name. Jane Eisner says Esther 9 ‘gives voice to a malevolence in the Jewish tradition that makes me wince, spotlighting an unfortunate feature of human behaviour, inviting us even today to beseech God to pursue and destroy our enemies.’

On the other hand, the story of Esther recognise the pain and destruction visited upon enemies and becomes an important and instructive reminder of the need to temper any sense of vindication, a reminder of the need to move from vengeance to empathy.

During my return visits over the past year or two to Prague, the ghetto in Venice and the Marais in Paris, I was reminded that while Haman and Hitler planned and plotted on a grand scale, there are always people who plot and plan evil and the destruction of innocence on varying scales of intensity and application.

We would be naïve to ever underestimate the capacity of people to do evil, nor should we ever undervalue the importance of our contribution to protecting the vulnerable, the frightened and the victimised in our society today.

When we realise that we have been saved from disasters or from our enemies, when sorrow has been turned into gladness and mourning into a holiday, we should not only feast and celebrate among ourselves but also mark these as ‘days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor’ (Esther 9: 22), and remember all who suffer the consequences.

Megillat Ester or Scroll of Esther, silver with coloured stones and gilded, dated Vienna 1844, in the Jewish Museum, Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Daily prayer in Lent with
early English saints:
39, 23 March 2024,
Saint Hugh of Lincoln

Saint Hugh of Lincoln depicted in a statue at Saint Mary Magdalen Church, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

We are approaching the last week of Lent, and tomorrow is Palm Sunday, the Sixth Sunday in Lent (24 March 2024). In the Jewish calendar, the festival of Purim begins this evening (23 March) and continues until tomorrow evening (24 March).

Throughout Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on the lives of early, pre-Reformation English saints commemorated in Common Worship.

Before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, A reflection on an early, pre-Reformation English saint;

2, today’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Saint Hugh of Lincoln (left) and Saint Frideswide of Oxford depicted in a window in Saint Mary’s Church, Shenley Church End (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Early English pre-Reformation saints: 39, Saint Hugh of Lincoln

Saint Hugh of Lincoln is remembered in Common Worship on 17 November.

Hugh was born at Avalon in Burgundy in 1140 and at first made his profession with the Augustinian canons but, when he was 25, he became a monk at the Carthusian Grande Chartreuse. In about 1175, he was invited by the King Henry II, to become prior of his Charterhouse foundation at Witham in Somerset, badly in need of reform even though it had been only recently founded.

In 1186, Hugh was persuaded to accept the See of Lincoln, then the largest diocese in England. He brought huge energy to the diocese and, together with discerning appointments to key posts, he revived the schools in Lincoln, repaired and enlarged the cathedral, visited the See extensively, drew together the clergy to meet in synod and generally brought an efficiency and stability to the Church.

Hugh also showed great compassion for the poor and the oppressed, ensuring that sufferers of leprosy were cared for and that Jews were not persecuted. He both supported his monarch yet also held out against any royal measures he felt to be extreme, while managing not to make an enemy of the king. He died in London on 17 November 1200.

Saint Hugh of Lincoln (right) and King Edward the Confessor in the Cooper Window in Saint Peter’s Church, Berkhamsted (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John 11: 45-57 (NRSVA):

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! 50 You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ 51 He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53 So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

54 Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.

55 Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. 56 They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?’ 57 Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.

The pet swan of Saint Hugh of Lincoln is an amusing detail in the Cooper Window in Saint Peter’s Church, Berkhamsted (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayers (Saturday 23 March 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), has been ‘Lent Reflection: True repentance is the key to Christian Freedom.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Revd Dr Simon Ro, Dean of Graduate School of Theology at Sungkonghoe (Anglican) University, Seoul, Korea.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (23 March 2024) invites us to pray in these words:

We pray Lord for the work and mission of the Anglican Church of Korea. We pray too for the Graduate School of Theology at Sungkonghoe – may they continue to nurture and teach theology for all those seeking to learn.

The Collect:

Most merciful God,
who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ
delivered and saved the world:
grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross
we may triumph in the power of his victory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you have taught us
that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters
we do also for you:
give us the will to be the servant of others
as you were the servant of all,
and gave up your life and died for us,
but are alive and reign, now and for ever.

Additional Collect:

Gracious Father,
you gave up your Son
out of love for the world:
lead us to ponder the mysteries of his passion,
that we may know eternal peace
through the shedding of our Saviour’s blood,
Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect on the Eve of Palm Sunday:

Almighty and everlasting God,
who in your tender love towards the human race
sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
to take upon him our flesh
and to suffer death upon the cross:
grant that we may follow the example of his patience and humility,
and also be made partakers of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Yesterday: Saint Gilbert of Sempringham

Tomorrow: Saint Edmund Rich of Abingdon

The Christ the King or Cooper Window in Saint Peter’s Church, Berkhamsted, with Saint Hugh of Lincoln in the bottom left corner (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org