Celebrating Purim this Year

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 24 March 2024

This evening begins Shabbat Zachor – the Shabbat that always precedes Purim, which we will celebrate tomorrow night and Sunday morning.

Purim is traditionally a festival of unadulterated fun – one in which we let our hair down, let go of the difficulties and the complexities of our everyday lives, and enjoy ourselves.

We throw ourselves into the story of Esther – a fairytale in which we know who is 100% right and 100% wrong.


How can we celebrate Purim this year?

How can we drink and make merry, and forget about the real world, when there are still 138 hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza?

How can we revel and take pleasure in a story that sees the Israelites take vengeance on their would-be attackers, killing so many of them in the process?

Why will we, at Alyth, continue to celebrate Purim, despite everything that is happening in the world?

We are by no means the first people in history to raise this question. And this is not the first time, nor is it the last, in which people in other places will suffer while we have fun.

Writing in the Jewish Chronicle in March 1888, founder of Liberal Judaism, Claude Montefiore, argued that he would not be sorry if a festival like Purim, which did not seem to have very much going for it except for its strong streak of Jewish nationalism, were simply to wither and disappear from our festival calendar.

He points out that, even if it were divinely decreed that ‘some must ingloriously perish that others may live and become a blessing to the world … no cry of triumph must be raised over a vanquished foe.’

In this way, Purim is entirely different to Pesach. In just a month’s time, we will be celebrating our victory over Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but we will not gloat – we won’t raise a cry of triumph. In fact, we go to great pains to make sure that we acknowledge the pain and the suffering of our enemies, as we remove drops of wine from our cups for each plague as we name it – diminishing the sweetness of our cup in recognition of the suffering of others.

Purim does not do this. Purim presents a world in which who is good and who is bad is obvious. It presents a world in which we do not have to feel pity or empathy for those who suffer who are not part of us, who are not part of our group. In this respect, the story of Purim is entirely unrealistic – it’s a fairy tale. And if it were realistic – if we read the story and said, oh yes of course good and evil are that clear cut, I experienced that yesterday – well, then we would not have need of the story.

The reality in our world is that evil often triumphs over good – that’s why we need a story in which good unambiguously defeats evil.

Rabbi John Rayner, Rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue for many years, speaking before Purim in 1987, argues that even though the story of Purim is oversimplified – that struggle between good and evil is still real. It is still something that we have to concentrate our minds upon, even when we acknowledge that the real world is in reality more messy and complicated. He worries that, if we see the moral questions of the world as too complicated, we may become ‘aloof’ from it.

I want to end this evening with words from Rabbi Rayner’s sermon: ‘Just for twenty-four hours let us enter the fairy-tale world of make-believe, where right is clearly recognised as right and wrong s wrong, and the victory of the children of light over the children of darkness is instantaneous and overwhelming. And when Purim is over, let us come down to earth and strive, in spite of all the ambiguities and complexities of the real world, patiently to bring the fulfilment of that vision a little nearer.’

Shabbat Shalom