Blast rekindles recollections of past tragedies during Purim

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NEW YORK — The timing of Monday's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv could not have been more striking.

It was the day before Purim, the Jewish calendar's most passionately joyous holiday, when for the fourth time in nine days a Palestinian suicide bomber aligned with the fundamentalist Hamas destroyed the lives of innocents.

There are remarkable parallels between the recent horrifying events in Israel and the story of Purim.

The Purim narrative, like all good mythical and biblical sagas, is full of tensions — between evil and justice, hope and despair, death and life, victimization and vengeance, suffering and redemption.

Recent experiences between Jews and Hamas-linked Palestinians are full of precisely those same tensions — between hope for the possibility of peace and the despair of losing scores of Jews to murderous hatred.

"Purim is a holiday in which you have to look carefully to find God, since God isn't mentioned in the Megillah [Book of Esther]," said Rabbi David Wolpe, a lecturer in Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

The Book of Esther tells the tale of Haman, the prime minister of the ancient Persian city of Shushan, who was bent on murdering all its Jewish citizens.

One of Shushan's Jews, Mordechai, learned of Haman's plans and convinced his cousin Esther to join him in trying to avert them. She became part of the king's harem so that she would have a chance to talk King Ahasuerus into helping.

In the end, Esther and Mordechai save their community from Haman's murderous plans, and Haman and his 10 sons are hanged on the gallows they erected for the Jews.

The story of Purim really begins the Shabbat before, with a special Torah reading, a cautionary tale to Jews in their own land given to them by God. The reading ends with a commandment to never forget that Amalek, the enemy, always surrounds us.

Given what happened in Tel Aviv this week, "there's an incredible irony that the whole Purim story is about a continual battle against enemies and evil," said Rabbi Daniel Gordis, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Wolpe added: "It's a paradox that we want to wipe out the names of our enemies and we tell our children to do that by sounding groggers at the mention of Haman's name. The result is that the names of Mordechai and Esther go by without anyone noticing, but the name of Haman we pay tremendous attention to.

"That's a lesson of Jewish history, to pay tremendous attention to your enemies."

But what is the proper way to pay "tremendous attention" to one's enemies?

In a section that gets little attention in many contemporary Purim celebrations, the Jews of Shushan seek revenge: After they are saved, they kill 75,000 of their persecutors, presumably Haman's army troops.

One of the central themes of Purim, a Hebrew word meaning "lots," refers to the way that Haman decided in which month he would conduct the slaughter.

"Lots are totally random, and there is something horrendously random about" the way the Hamas suicide bombers do their work, Gordis said.

Although Esther and Mordechai ultimately triumph over Haman, and Shushan's Jews are redeemed from their death sentence, the drama often seems too close to call.

There have been a number of other strikingly close calls for Jews on Purim throughout Jewish history.

In 1991, Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles stopped raining on Israel, and Jews there finally got to take off their gas masks and come out of their sealed rooms.

On Purim in the year 1574, the Jews of Thrace — a region now in Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey — were saved from extermination, as were the Jews of Rhodes in 1840.

On Purim in 1631 the Jews of Ragusa, Italy, were saved from the accusation of blood libel. On the same date in 1833, in Trieste, Italy, a leading Jew-baiter died, as did a persecutor of Jews named Count Aginskly, on the same date in 1863, in Ritova, Lithuania.

In some instances, Jewish vengeance against enemies was carried out by others. For instance, it was Purim 1946 that Nazis found guilty during the Nuremberg trials were put to death.

Eleven men were sentenced to death, but one, Hermann Goering, committed suicide before he could be hanged.

As the 10 Nazis — like Haman's 10 sons — went to their deaths, one of them, Julius Streicher, shouted, "Purimfest!"

Is there some metaphysical connection between Purim and important events in Jewish history, between the Jewish role in the Purim story and subsequent occurrences?

The model of vengeance presented by the Purim story is a difficult one to tackle.

"The line between being Mordechai defending your community, and being Amalek and Haman, destroying others, is a line that everybody's really got to examine," said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, which is part of Aleph: The Center for Jewish Renewal, based near Philadelphia.

People "have to struggle with the Amalek within and without."