Photo taken in Hebron in the Jabbar’s make-shift tent after their home was destroyed. 1998
Fasting and Feasting are linked in Jewish ritual time. A brief period of fasting often precedes Jewish life cycle and holiday ceremonies to give us space to focus our hearts and minds on unhealed wounds within self and community before we enter the period of festivities.
Rituals of fasting and reparative action before festival time remind us that we are not permitted to enjoy the cup of celebration without first acknowledging what remains unhealed.
The Fast of Esther is part of this tradition. How shall we observe the Fast of Esther this year in 5783? What harms do we need to acknowledge before entering the joy of Purim? Since the rise of the Israeli state, followers of Zionism have used Jewish holidays as weapons of harm deployed against Palestinians. Purim is a case in point.
Since its origins more than two millennium ago, Purim has been celebrated as a time of clowning around and imbibing alcohol while listening to a raucous rendition of The Scroll of Esther. The biblical farce about gender and Jewishness in the diaspora originated in Persia and was mostly likely inspired by local spring festivals. The story about a Jewish orphan who becomes Queen consort to the all powerful King Ahashverosh is a fairy tale. In her position as queen, Esther, aka Hadassah, foils a murderous plot by the king’s evil advisor Haman to kill all the Jews living in the Persian Empire. Like many fictional tales from 1001 Nights to Star Wars, the villain’s plot is turned against him and he ends up suffering the terrible fate he planned for his enemies. Hubris is the downfall of the dastardly.
The custom of making noise every time Haman’s name is mentioned in the story originates in his identification as a descendant of the biblical account of Amalek, a group of mercenaries known for their extreme cruelty. This association is a way to emphasize just how evil Haman is. In response to their heartless actions, a divine command is issued to blot out the name of Amalek. Jewish people act out that commandment by making noise when Haman’s name is mentioned during the reading of the megillah.
Here’s the biblical text about blotting out the name of Amalek:
זָכוֹר, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק, בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָים
אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ, ויְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל-הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ--וְאַתָּה, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ; וְלֹא יָרֵא, אֱלֹהִים וְהָיָה בְּהָניחַ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ מִכָּל-אֹיְבֶיךָ מִסָּבִיב, בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה-אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ--תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם; לֹא, תִּשְׁכָּח
“Remember (zachor) what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Mitzryim . How, undeterred by ‘fear of God’, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when Adonai Elohekha grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Adonai Elohekha is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” Deut. 25: 17-19
This passage is read in synagogue on Shabbat Zackhor, The Sabbath of Remembrance, which falls on the Shabbat before Purim.
The ‘blotting out’ of Haman was performed, not with a sword, but with noise makers while most of the revelers were inebriated.
No one in the rabbinic tradition thought a person should blot out the name of Amalek by literally going out and killing descendants of Amalek, as the following texts covering a period of two thousand years demonstrate:
In my own way, I tried to transform the violent aspects of the story so the horrible and violent end of Haman and his ten sons is not a moment for gloating or celebration.
This story is, after all, considered part of the sacred canon. While serving as a congregational rabbi, I opened up the narrative to other possible endings when Haman’s plot is revealed. I would ask Nahalat Shalom holy day celebrants, “What shall we do with Haman?” I could count on at least one person to follow the traditional plot line and yell, “Hang him!” But, year after year, the community would slap back with a resounding, “NO!” I would ask again, “So what do we do with Haman?” Many creative responses would ensue! “He should go through a restorative justice program!” “Let him learn how to bake Jewish cookies with Arthur” (a beloved local Jewish baker, z”l). “Let him study our culture.” “Let him do community service.”
It was heartwarming to hear that our communal response to the violence in the text was not to glorify it, ignore it, or justify it. Rather, to dismantle it with alternative nonviolent and restorative justice alternatives.
In 1994, however, Purim put on a new mask: the mask of zionism. What was once a Jewish carnival holiday became a site for the performance of murderous acts in the name of blotting out the name of Amalek.
On Purim 1994, Barukh Goldstein activated his zionist settler world view by entering the Tomb of Abraham in Hebron to literally erase the name of Amalek by fatally shooting 29 Muslim Palestinians in prayer and wounded 130 others with his army issued machine gun before he was overpowered by worshippers.
A few years after the massacre, I co-led a Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation (now Eye Witness Palestine) to Hebron/Al Khalil. We visited relatives of the men Baruch Goldstein killed. We sat on small plastic chairs under gray winter skies. The tea could not warm the chill of the stone floor that was the only remnant of the family home. Israel demolished the houses of surviving relatives in the wake of Goldstein’s massacre. to supposedly deter grieving families from retaliating. In addition to making families homeless, Israel further traumatized the Palestinian residents of Hebron by shutting down 1,200 Palestinian market stands and stores along a main thoroughfare called Shuhada Street which, by the way, was repaved with 10 million US tax dollars.
Israeli policy has always been aimed at traumatizing Palestinians as a way to force them to leave the country. This is the policy of Israel since 1948 and it has led the Jewish state to accept apartheid as normative to preserve the so-called “Jewish character” of the state.
As we approach Purim 2023, Israel is committed now more than ever to ‘finishing’ its project of depopulation of Palestinians.
Barukh Goldstein’s most ardent follower holds a key position in the current Israeli government.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, a committed Meir Kahane zealot who dresses up as Barukh Goldstein for Purim, believes in annexing the west bank, forced expulsion of Palestinians and apartheid for those who somehow remain. He thinks that birth units in Israeli hospitals should be segregated. 1/3 of Israeli voters cast their ballots for him. He is main stream. Ben-Gvir deploys violence and provocation to incite Palestinians to protest so he can deploy his own specialized police to kill Palestinians, destroy their homes and towns, disappear Palestinian dissidents, and ‘transfer’ Palestinians to Gaza, a virtual prison, or to Jordan.
One path to reclaiming the Fast of Esther as a torah of nonviolence is centering Vashti and Esther’s part in the story.
The scroll of Esther begins with an act of resistance to patriarchy. Queen Vashti, the king’s chief consort, refuses to obey Ahashverosh’s command to appear before his male companions so he can show off his trophy wife, as it is written, “But Queen Vashti refused to obey the king’s command.” (Scroll of Esther 1:12) Vashti’s noncooperation sets in motion a series of events in the story which culminates in Vashti’s successor also refusing to obey the king’s command.
Esther subverts the violent fate ordained by Haman by ordering a public fast in order to bring to light the immanent danger facing Jews.
“Go! Gather together all the Jews present in Shushan (and all people who support us). Fast! Do not eat or drink for three days and nights. Those of us in the palace will fast with you in preparation to face the King in non-compliance with his law. If I perish, I perish.” Esther employs fasting as a nonviolent tactic to resist state violence. While the story is fictional, the fast deployed as a call to action has always been a part of our lived tradition.
The Fast of Esther is a perfect time for Jews who are committed to universal human rights to use the fast in its traditional context: to give public witness to the immediate violence fasting Palestinians living under Israeli rule and reflect on how we can make a positive difference in ending support for Israel’s occupation that restores equity, dignity and freedom for all of us.