In Judaism we speak of obligations. We can’t eat pork. We recite kaddish when someone passes away. We bless scrumptious challah from Glicks. These are the things we do. It’s sometimes bad for our livers, but we do it anyway.
We often don’t look very deeply into why we are obligated to do a lot of these ceremonies. Some have obvious functions; some less so. But it is one particular Jewish obligation with which I am especially fascinated.
When Purim comes around on Saturday night, it will be yet another time in the Jewish calendar when we are obliged to sit as a community and hear the stories of our people.
Every Shabbat we read the narratives that stretch from the sin of Adam to the burial of Moses. Over Pesach it is the great escape, against all odds, of the Jewish people from tyrannical rulers. The story of Jonah, a small man with a large task, in the belly of the whale, is recited on Yom Kippur. And every week, through the Haftarra, we sink our teeth into the great (and often tragic) history of battles, mystical prophecies and the rise and fall of Jewish Kings.
As grandiose as these scene scapes may be, they are above all about individuals. Regular people with regular lives, much like you and me. And therein lies their power and their longevity.
The story of Purim is no exception. A great empire flourishes, forcing its fist against the face of a small and separate people. Our people. Their destruction is all but secured, fixed by the hands of an indifferent fate; by a lottery, the Hebrew for which is pur (hence the name: Purim). But beneath this tragic narrative (based on a true story, would you believe it?) are the stories of individuals.
A queen (Vashti) who defies not only her husband’s orders but her fate as an invisible woman in a man’s world. An assimilated Jewess (Esther) who discovers the importance of identity and believes that the actions of an individual can make a tremendous difference. A puppet king (Achashverosh) who finds himself ruled. There’s even a Disney-esque, happily-ever-after ending (notwithstanding a vengeful war in the last few pages), which goes as follows:
…the month turned for them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day; they made them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor (Megillat Esther, Ch. 9)
And we’ve been telling this story, indeed we were obliged to, every year for 1700 yearsWe’ve been giving gifts of food to friends and family and helping the poor at this time of the year, every year for 1700 years, because we have committed to re-telling this story. When we let these tales seep deeply into us, and we tell them with the same passion with which they were first recalled, they affect us and move us to act.
When I came to realise the vital importance of our stories, I thought: How do other, more contemporary stories drive us to act?
The story of Gilad Shalit inspired a country and a Jewish Diaspora for more than five years to remember and fight for a single life.
The story of Mohamed Boauazizi, a Tunisian street vendor whose humiliation and subsequent self-immolation sparked a revolution, lit up the Middle East.
The story of Rachel Beckwith, a nine-year-old girl from Washington who tragically died in a car accident, motivated strangers from around the world to raise $1.2million to build water wells for 60,000 people in Ethiopia.
Or the story of Naim, 18, a high school student from Nuba Mountains, Sudan, who was kidnapped and tortured for 10 days in October, 2012, before being released. His story is part of a broader one; that of an ancient people, systematically being wiped out by a brutal dictator. So far, his story and his people’s story has not been properly heard.
Stories move history. They are history.
Courageous film director Chris Jordan will release a film in November called Midway, documenting the tragic effect of human behaviour on our earth. In it he asks: “Do we have the courage to…allow ourselves to feel deeply enough that it transforms us and our future?”
The Jewish people are the quintessential story-tellers. So this Purim, when we hear the Story of Esther yet again, let us be reminded of the power stories possess to transform us.
I challenge every reader of the JAA newsletter to find one story that needs to be told and do what they can to tell it; spread it through social media, email, pigeon. Whatever.
Seek out those stories that are still but a whimper, and amplify them. And let them transform us and our future.
Joel Lazar, Melbourne Education Coordinator, firstname.lastname@example.org
This piece was inspired by an idea from Repair the World, a Jewish not-for-profit based in New York, committed to making acts of social service a defining element of American Jewish life, learning and leadership.