Purim is a time when we play with identities, dress in disguises and revel in deceptions. There is an aspect of great fun to this holiday, and there are lessons that are deeply serious.
One of the timeless aspects of the Jewish calendar is that, while the dates and texts may remain the same – Purim again will start the night of 13 Adar and the Megillah will not have changed – we, the readers, are different than we were last year and the circumstances of the world we live in have changed since our last reading.
As with many Jewish holidays, Purim includes a lesson about the importance of continuity and survival against existential enemies. This is, sadly, an enduring reality.
Just this week, at the annual conference on international security policy, in Munich, Germany, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reiterated the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program and warned that regime not to underestimate Israel’s resolve in confronting it.
There are other threats, as well, in the form of growing antisemitism among far-right parties in Europe and in the British Labour Party, online and in the number of antisemitic incidents reported in North America and elsewhere.
We are still trying to uncover whether antisemitism played a role in the mass murder of 17 students and teachers at a Parkland, Fla., school last week. The tragedy led a white supremacist group to claim the perpetrator was one of theirs, but, despite being widely reported, this claim has been debunked.
Five of the 17 victims were Jewish – the high school is in an area with a significant Jewish population – and the murderer’s online rantings were teeming with hatred of African-Americans and Jews. In one online chat, he claimed that his birth mother was Jewish and that he was glad he never met her. Per usual, we are engaged in debating what motivated the perpetrator – easy access to guns, mental illness, pure evil or various combinations of these. As usual, we will engage in a nearly identical cycle of shock, grief, argument and ultimate apathy the next time this occurs, and the next time.
Threats of another kind are also top news right now, with charges recently laid against a number of Russian individuals and groups who are alleged to have interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The deception appears to have involved creating and stealing social media identities, as well as starting fake political pages intended to divide Americans. A rally against Islam, in Houston, Tex., in May 2016, was met with a counter-rally against Islamophobia. Both rallies, it now appears, were incited by Russian troublemakers.
More seriously still, the allegation is that deceptive and outright false statements were made in online posts and advertisements, which had the apparent impact of suppressing support for Hillary Clinton in key swing states, thus electing Donald Trump president. As each new allegation and example of proof has arisen, Trump has misrepresented reality, deflecting charges that his campaign (including members of his family) was engaged in collusion with the Russians, and claiming vindication at every turn.
A better president would pledge to get to the bottom of whatever is (or isn’t) real in the matter. Instead, this president plays partisan games and, unlike King Ahasuerus, does not take wise counsel willingly.
So, identity, disguises and deception are not only central to our Purimspiels, but woven through our news cycles and sensibilities every day, demonstrating again the eternal relevance of our narratives. Each year, on this holiday as on other days, we recognize and gird ourselves against the threats to our identity and existence. But we also celebrate our survival and rejoice in our not insignificant good fortune.