Identity and Memory

The holiday of Purim is approaching and along with it come its bundle of colors and customs which take on a life of their own.

Suddenly we are required to stop our routine and to forget everything—our fears and concerns and even to forget who we are. The holiday provides us with the means to do so—masks, costumes, wine and unbridled humor. This would seem to be the message of the holiday. I don’t have any desire to ruin this, but it appears to me that we ought to pause for a moment and search out the hidden meaning of the holiday.

The holiday of Purim has a unique history. The story is full of intrigues(1) and concealments(2), suspicions(3) and false pride(4), ambitions and the ambitious(5), discrimination(6), alcohol(7), women(8), parties(9), arrogance(10), affliction(11) and joy(12). All these things come to remind us that in history, fate can reverse anything, as happened to Haman the Wicked who felt that he was at the height of his power before ending his days in a tragic manner.

In a certain way, Purim reminds us of a Hollywood movie in which the “good guy” (Mordechai) who saves the king is forgotten and the “bad guy” (Haman) who tries to wipe out an entire nation, marches on to everlasting glory. Nonetheless, something goes awry, and, as in any good movie, it ends with the good guys being victorious and the bad buys getting punished.

Can it be that this story is so simple that it has no other message?

First of all, I believe that behind the masks, the wine and the costumes there lurks a very dark story of discrimination and hate, a story of penance and death. In my opinion, the story of Esther needs to bring us to careful self-examination which will show us that history has its ups and downs which can twist fate and save us from any threats. At the same time, we must be extremely cautious of the message of vengeance conveyed in the Megillah.

Secondly, we must remember that being faithful to our faith has its costs—Mordechai nearly paid with his life and the lives of his people. But were we to walk through life with a mask over our faces and we were not able to accept ourselves, if we would hide behind a costume, then what is the point of living?

We live full lives when there is a connection between what we practice to what we preach; when there is a connection between what we received from our fathers to what we pass on to our children.

If we recall that one of the important things for us to do in Purim is to remember, then perhaps this Purim we can leave behind all the masks and costumes that we use to hide for a moment and to accept the yoke of our Jewish identity.

Happy Purim!
Rabbi Mauricio Balter
Executive Director, Masorti Olami and MERCAZ Olami


(1) At that time, when Mordecai was sitting in the palace gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs who guarded the threshold, became angry, and plotted to do away with King Ahasuerus. (Esther 2:21)
(2) Esther did not reveal her people or her kindred, for Mordecai had told her not to reveal it. (Esther 2:10)
(3) For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come.
18 This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty’s officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation! (Esther 1:17-18)
(4) At the end of this period, the king gave a banquet for seven days in the court of the king’s palace garden for all the people who lived in the fortress Shushan, high and low alike.
6 [There were hangings of] white cotton and blue wool, caught up by cords of fine linen and purple wool to silver rods and alabaster columns; and there were couches of gold and silver on a pavement of marble, alabaster, mother-of-pearl, and mosaics. (Esther 1:5-6)
(5) Nevertheless, Haman controlled himself and went home. He sent for his friends and his wife Zeresh,
11 and Haman told them about his great wealth and his many sons, and all about how the king had promoted him and advanced him above the officials and the king’s courtiers. (Esther 5:10-11) Haman entered, and the king asked him, “What should be done for a man whom the king desires to honor?” Haman said to himself, “Whom would the king desire to honor more than me?” (Esther 6:6)
(6) Haman then said to King Ahasuerus, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. (Esther 3:8)
(7) Royal wine was served in abundance, as befits a king, in golden beakers, beakers of varied design.
And the rule for the drinking was, “No restrictions!” For the king had given orders to every palace steward to comply with each man’s wishes. (Esther 1:7-8)
(8) On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he ordered Mehuman, Bizzetha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven eunuchs in attendance on King Ahasuerus,
11 to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a royal diadem, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials; for she was a beautiful woman. (Esther 1:10-11) The king’s servants who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for Your Majesty. (Esther 2:2)
(9) in the third year of his reign, he gave a banquet for all the officials and courtiers—the administration of Persia and Media, the nobles and the governors of the provinces in his service. (Esther 9:3)
(10) For no fewer than a hundred and eighty days he displayed the vast riches of his kingdom and the splendid glory of his majesty. (Esther 1:4)
(11) the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor. (Esther 9:22)
(12) The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor. (Esther 8:16)
(13) In the first month, that is, the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, pur—which means “the lot”—was cast before Haman concerning every day and every month, [until it fell on] the twelfth month, that is, the month of Adar. (esther 3:7) And so, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—when the king’s command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power. (Eshter 9:1)
(14) And so, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—when the king’s command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power. (Esther 9:1)