The festival of Purim takes place tonight. Our road will be closed for the carnival and the biblical book of Esther will be read all over the world tonight and tomorrow morning. In some places, especially in Israel, the festival is extended until Friday.
Everywhere, people dress up and make a loud noise (preferably with a rattle) every time the name of the wicked chief minister, 'Haman', is pronounced during the reading of the 'scroll of Esther', known as the Megillah. During Purim people also get drunk, stop cars, demand money for charity and generally behave differently from normal.
Why is the story of Purim, featuring Queen Esther, so important to Jews all over the world? The story depicts the first attempted genocide of the Jews in Jewish history, which took place in Persia. It is a typical story of diaspora. It is also the only biblical book in which G-d's name is missing.
Why is G-d's name missing from this one biblical book? Surely the book of Esther describes how G-d saved the Jewish people from certain destruction at the hands of the wicked chief minister, Haman, and his master Ahasuerus (usually considered to be the Persian monarch, Xerxes). So why doesn't G-d get a mention?
What the story is telling us is that G-d can be there in absentia, while human beings wrestle with doing the right thing.
Queen Esther was just a simple Jewish girl who was instructed by her uncle Mordechai to save her people from certain death by marrying the enemy, King Ahasuerus. The story is both convoluted and complex, but involves a beauty parade, a harem, feasting, drinking, resourcefulness and cunning.
The wicked Haman who wanted to destroy the Jews is regarded as a descendant of Amalek whom, in Deuteronomy 25: 17-19, we are instructed to 'remember'. Last Shabbat, after the main biblical reading, in shuls all over the world Jews added the following words from Deuteronomy to remind us of the upcoming festival:
'Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way, when you were leaving Egypt. That he happened upon you on the way, and he struck those of you who were straggling, weakened, at the rear, when you were faint and exhausted. And in addition, he did not fear G-d. It shall come to pass that when the Lord your G-d gives you respite from all your enemies all around, in the Land that the Lord, your G-d, is giving you as an inheritance to possess it, you will erase the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!'
The idea of Amalek and his descendants is still with us. I was reminded of this when I bumped into my oldest and closest friend – we went to school together over 50 years ago.
Given the time of year, she reminded me of what her mother (now aged 94) went through as a child in Bergen Belsen concentration camp. A young teenager from Poland, Manya lost everyone except her brother, Chaim, who went through 8 concentration camps, ending up in Buchenwald, where Manya eventually found him after the War.
How did Manya survive Bergen Belsen? She told me that she had been a very sickly child – always ill and off school. But somehow in Belsen, she managed to remain well and bumped into her cousin, also interred in Belsen, who went down with typhus. Manya nursed her cousin, even sharing the same container of water, without any ill effects.
Eventually, in 1945, the British army arrived and Manya and her cousin were set free, but not before they had been made to go on a long march, which nearly finished them off. The Nazis knew that the war was over and that the Germans had lost, but their last act of defiance was to insist on making sure that the weakest and least resistant, the skeletal residue of the 6 million, would be exterminated just for the sake of it.
This is Amalek – causeless hatred and murderousness in the centre of Europe. And this is also what the Jews had to put up with as a tiny minority in the vast Persian Empire. There was no reason for Haman to need to kill them: the Jews were a tiny people who did not constitute a threat to anyone. Amalek therefore represents inexplicable monstrous ruthlessness and inhumanity. These traits are still with us in the 21st century.
The Jews of Persia survived through the courage of two people, Esther and Mordechai. Similarly, those people who survived the Holocaust were often those who helped others in the camps. Survivors had to make heroic efforts to overcome depressive thoughts and think of others instead. Where was G-d in all this? G-d was there in the humanity which managed to survive the horrors. As Mordechai tells Esther (chapter 4: 13-14):
'Do not imagine that just because you are in the King's palace, you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from some other place, while you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether in fact it was for such a time as this that you were raised to royalty.'
In other words, to refrain from acting when we are in a position to do so is as serious a shortcoming as being a perpetrator. If we are in a position to act, we should do so. This is the mission of human beings. And that is why G-d appeared to absent Himself, both in Persia and in the death camps of Europe. We should always ask ourselves not 'Where was G-d?' But 'where were people?'
And this is why the festival of Purim celebrates our joy at having survived catastrophe. And is quickly followed one month later by the festival of Pesach and the Exodus from Egypt. Both spring festivals remind us that in seemingly impossible situations we should not be slaves to inertia. Instead we should remember that we are made in G-d's image and should therefore have especial regard for the weak, the straggler, the stranger, the abandoned, the other. That is our only security in life. All else is illusion.
Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.