We often think of Purim with its costumes and noisemakers as a children's holiday. But its themes and ideas are of great importance to Jewish life. In fact, our tradition tells us that we are to drop whatever we are doing, no matter its importance, to go and listen to the story of Purim.
According to the Talmud, "The study of Torah is interrupted for the reading of the M'gillah." And Maimonides (a 12th century sage and rabbi) teaches, "The reading of the M'gillah certainly supersedes all other mitzvot." (Maimonides,Yad, M'gillah 1:1)
What, then, does the Purim story teach us that is of such magnitude?* Rabbi Mark Washofsky comments,
The biblical scroll of Esther recounts the courageous acts of Esther and Mordecai through which the Jews triumphed over enemies bent upon their destruction, maintaining their self-respect and religious integrity, and refusing to bow before any authority but God.This theme of religious survival as a tiny minority in the midst of a sea of often-hostile nations is a central element in the story of the Jewish people. It is our story, an indelible feature of our consciousness as a community and as individuals.Therefore, when the time comes on Purim to read that story, there is no more important duty to fulfill. The large crowd and the carnival atmosphere of this day are expressions of our joy at the fact of our survival and our belief that the struggle against bigotry and persecutions can be won again as in ancient times. (Jewish Living: A Guide To Contemporary Reform Practice, URJ Press, p.125-6)
THE STORY OF PURIM
This story takes place in the land of Persia (today's Iran) at the time when Ahashverosh (aka Ahasuerus) was king. King Ahashverosh held a banquet in his capital city of Shushan and ordered his queen,Vashti, to come and dance before his guests. She refused to appear and lost her royal position.
Based on advice from his counselors,Ahashverosh held a contest to choose a new queen. Mordechai, a Jewish man living in Shushan, encouraged his niece, Esther, to enter the competition. Esther won but, following the advice of her uncle, did not reveal her Jewish origin.
Mordechai often sat near the gate of the king's palace. One day he overheard two men, Bigthan and Teresh, plotting to kill the king. Mordechai reported what he had heard to Esther. She then reported the information to the king.The matter was investigated and found to be true. Bigthan and Teresh came to an unfortunate end. Mordechai's deed was recorded, but his actual reward came later.
Haman, one of the king's advisers, despised the Jews. He plotted to kill them and cast purim ("lots," plural of pur), a kind of lottery, to determine the day on which he would carry out his evil deed. Haman also convinced King Ahashverosh to go along with his plan, although in the M'gillah, Haman never identified the Jews as the people he wished to destroy.
Guided by Mordechai, Esther foiled Haman's plot, and the Jews were saved.The fate that Haman had planned for the Jews became his own.The holiday of Purim celebrates the bravery of Esther and Mordechai and the deliverance of the Jewish people from the cruelty of oppression.