Making Purim: Knowing Hero from Villain

Soon we will be celebrating Purim. It is a one of the great pure fun holidays of the Jewish calendar: costumes, good food, exchanging gifts, games and a wild story. Some people even have the custom of getting drunk enough that they can’t tell the difference between Haman (the bad guy) and Mordechai (the good guy). All drinking should be done responsibly and with consideration. So why has our tradition kept this custom in the “archive” as it were, as something that people still do?



We celebrate Purim as a miracle: God saved the Jewish people from destruction at the hands of Haman, as authorized by King Achashverosh. Funnily enough, the Book of Esther, Megillat Esther, is one of two books in the Tanach, the Jewish Bible, which does not contain God’s name. If one wanted, the entire book could be read as a set of coincidences that lead us stumbling from one plot and sub theme to another.  We move from the Jews mourning over their impending doom to Haman - once the vizier of the Persian Empire – being hanged, to Mordechai, our hero, being appointed in his place and the Jews killing all their enemies. No miracles, just coincidences with the right people being in the right place at the right time. Almost like excessive drinking: no consciousness of what or who, just being there to celebrate the lucky happenstance that enables us to be saved. 

However, I think there is more here. We all know the saying “there are no coincidences”. This saying recognizes a guiding hand behind events that shape our lives and our world. Even if some of us don’t feel comfortable calling that God, it is same force that ensures what is supposed to happen, happens. It gives each of us the space to decide if something is good or bad, if it is an event to celebrate or mourn. Here again, we have echoes of Mordechai or Haman. It is up to us to decide and until we do, it is not 100% clear if the moment before us is good or bad. In large part, each event is what we make of it, how we take it into our lives and shape it as part of our narrative.

Finally, there is another level at which the story can be approached. Some people do things, convinced that their actions are for the greater good. Others approach their actions with abhorrence and try to prevent them. No one likes to think of themselves as Haman, the great villain. Everyone has a justification even for the most heinous acts. We all at various moments and to lesser or greater degrees fail to distinguish the Haman, the bad, and the Mordechai, the good, within ourselves. Moreover, there are people who are so convinced of their own righteousness, that they become fanatics and are willing to perpetrate atrocities to achieve their goals. In these cases, Mordechai becomes Haman, the good as they understand it, has gone so far that it becomes a license for all kinds of unspeakable deeds.

So this Purim, as we enjoy the gift of life, celebrate our existence and laugh with joy, take a moment to remember that there is a difference between Mordechai and Haman. Even though we sometimes forget and allow the hero to become the villain and vice versa, it is our job to be honest with ourselves and when we look at the world around us. We must call a spade a spade and by speaking truth to power, help bring to people under threat their own Purim, a moment when they are saved.


Rabbi Ira Goldberg