One of my favorite moments of the Jewish year occurs on the night of Purim, a chapter and four verses into the Megilla-reading. Achashverosh the king has been presented, his queen Vashti has come and gone and Mordechai is about to be introduced. The text of the scroll itself indicates a pause, seeming to draw attention to what follows. The reader traditionally stops, anticipation fills the momentary silence and then the congregation reads aloud: “Ish Yehudi. . .,” “A Jewish man…” The collective “sh” sounds softly emphatic.
Most years we arrive at this moment in a jumble of emotions. Those who have observed that day’s fast of Ta’anit Esther feel the effects associated with the lack of food and drink: hunger, thirst, headache and fatigue. And yet, an almost palpable giddiness suffuses the air: Purim is here and we will soon be eating and celebrating. Some may already be in costume; gragers are poised, awaiting Haman’s first mention.
Each Jewish holiday has distinctive qualities, and elicits equally distinctive responses from its celebrants. For reasons I have never fully understood, I have found Purim a particular challenge. It’s not the Megillah story; somehow, it always retains its suspense and poignancy. But the revelry and the getups discomfit me, although since becoming a father I can access Purim better through the unbridled delight my sons take in the costumes and commotion. But at this juncture, that all lies ahead. Right now the moment is breathless.
By nature I am uncomfortable in the spotlight, but I am a ba’al koreh, a congregational reader, and it is primarily through chanting the Megillah that I experience Purim. Many aspects of the weekly Torah-chanting are exaggerated in the Megillah: the listeners are more attentive; the verses are longer; and the cantillation sounds more dramatized, sentences cascading up and down, subtle shifts between major and minor keys, from the Esther tune to echoes of Eichah, the book of Lamentations. At no other time of the year, arguably, does the performer of a Jewish ritual have so much attention focused on him. Standing at the bimah, I feel the power of the congregation hanging (pardon the pun) on every word of the narrative.
It is at this point – “Ish Yehudi…” – that I most acutely feel the mood of the Megillah, of the holiday itself. Rashi remarks that Mordechai is referred to as a Yehudi because he was among those who were taken captive together with the Judean royalty, who then became known as Yehudim. Mordechai thus came to this designation not just because of his personal qualities, but because he, like others during those tumultuous times, identified and involved himself with the great national and spiritual catastrophe that had befallen the Jews of that era.
And although those few words succinctly sum up a great religious-historic personality, I find something both timeless and universal in the description. Mordechai, a leader, from the tribe of Benjamin, is described first and foremost as, essentially, what every Jew today is: “Ish Yehudi hayah be’Shushan ha’birah, ” a Jew in a foreign city. To my mind, this phrase concisely encapsulates our condition in the Diaspora: Jews, beyond labels and divisions, negotiating the vagaries of history’s vicissitudes in a non-Jewish milieu.
Wasn’t it this recognition of our Jewish common denominator, after all, that forged the focus, and resultant unity, that brought about the Purim miracle? The Megillah is replete with references to Jewish unity as the antidote to attempted genocide. Appealing to Esther’s sense of Jewish solidarity, Mordechai directs her to risk her life and intercede with the king. And once Esther decides to act, she tells Mordechai, “Go and gather all the Jews,” i.e., make them of one mind and purpose – repentance and prayer to G-d – in order to avert the decree. The Jews respond in kind: The Megillah recounts several times that they acted as a “congregation,” a single unit; and in so doing, they merited redemption.
Our rabbis teach us that the days of Purim are the most propitious time of the year to achieve Jewish unity, and that the food gifts and alms for the poor, the mitzvot of the day, represent the expression of unity achieved by the Jews during the events of the Megillah, which led to their deliverance. We foster unity when we share with our friends and provide for the needy. How appropriate are these mitzvot to a holiday in which we celebrate the fact that G-d saved our ancestors from a fate in which all Jewry were the intended victims, and in which the salvation came about through the unified efforts of those intended victims.
Each year, when I reach this moment in the Megillah reading, the sublime words make me shiver. “Ish Yehudi hayah be’Shushan ha’birah:” To me, the understated message in that plaintive phrase, collectively read aloud, offers a subtle glimpse of the unity that once was ours, and remains our holy aspiration.
© AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Mr. Huttler is an assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn, and an oral historian who has worked for the Shoah Foundation]