Rabbi Goldberg’s Purim 2018 letter

Shalom! Soon it will be the Jewish festival of Purim (Wednesday night, Feb 28). The Talmud poses the question: Why don’t we sing Hallel (biblical praises of God) on Purim? Various answers are proposed: 1) Rabbi Isaac says that we don’t say Hallel when recalling a miracle that occurred outside the Holy Land. 2) Rabbi Nahman suggests that the reading of the Megilla constitutes Purim’s Hallel so we don’t need to say the real Hallel as well. 3) Rava, another Sage, however, has a darker reading and a very clever reason. He says that it would be inappropriate to sing Hallel on Purim. Hallel contains the words “Praise you servants of the Eternal” (Psalms 113:2) and this does not ring true with our experience on Purim when, even at the end of Megillat Esther, the Jews are still the servants of Ahasuerus. Rava is telling us that despite all the singing, dancing and general merriment at the end of Megillat Esther something is fundamentally wrong with the world that Purim.

When Rava says that it is inappropriate to sing Hallel on Purim because the Jews are the servants of Ahasuerus rather than the servants of the Eternal, he is also addressing the Jews of his own generation. Ultimately a person can only serve one master, and as subjects of a diaspora ruler they, too, would need to compromise their religious principles to ensure their ongoing survival. In other words, Purim is not about sober reality and in the end we all need to confront what is real.

From Mordecai and Esther to Rava to today we know all too well that a fun holiday does not mask the bitterness, vulgarity and contempt of our present age. And like the Purim story, God’s presence all too often appears eclipsed. We are left seemingly on our own. Or to put it another way, we must decide if we will stand up to wrongdoing. Like Esther, we must determine what we are willing to risk to make the world a place of more justice and equality.
When Esther expresses reservations to Moredacai about sticking her neck out for others, Mordecai reminds her that her exalted position may have been granted precisely for this opportunity to do the right thing. And so, on this Purim, I would ask of each of us: what more can we do to address the wrongs in our world. Who knows? We may be where we are precisely because if we wish we can do something to bring more lasting blessing to our precious, troubled world.


by:  Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg