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Purim: The Holiday When We Became Jewish

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

  

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One of the questions I frequently receive is regarding the name “Jew”. The word Jew is a derivative of the name Judah, Jacob’s fourth son; hence calling someone by this name would seemingly imply that the person is a descendant of that particular tribe. However, as is well known, Jacob bore twelve sons, all of whom are the antecedents of our great nation. Why, then, is the entire Israelite nation known as “Jews”?1

Perhaps this question can be cleared up by analyzing the very first individual to be dubbed Jew: “There was a Jewish man in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordechai the son of Yair... a Benjaminite” (Esther 2:5). Yes, the first “Jew” was actually from the tribe of Benjamin!

An objective study of the Purim story reveals that the whole frightening episode was plainly avoidable. The entire incident was a result of Mordechai’s obstinate adherence to a code of behavior which was clearly outdated and inappropriate for the times. Mordechai was an elderly rabbi who yet recalled days – more than half a century beforehand – when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem and Torah Law was supreme. His snubbing of Haman might have been condign during that generation—but how dare he put his entire nation in danger of extinction by slighting the king’s favorite minister? Apparently someone neglected to inform this sage that the ability to conform is the trick to survival!

The entire incident was a result of Mordechai’s obstinate adherence to a code of behavior which was clearly outdated and inappropriate for the times
Mordechai, however, thought otherwise; and he had a famous precedent supporting his “foolish” actions. Many years earlier, a powerful Egyptian ruler wished to take his ancestor, Benjamin, as a slave. Benjamin’s brother Judah wouldn’t hear of such a possibility. In what would be his proudest and most defining moment, Judah completely ignored all royal protocol, angrily approached the powerful ruler – who, unbeknownst to him, was actually their brother Joseph – and threateningly demanded Benjamin’s release.

Judah is the embodiment of the exiled Israelite who must walk a thin tightrope: While he must live at peace with his neighbors, follow the law and customs of the land, and “pray for the peace of the regime,” he has the courage of his convictions to stand up against all the powers that be in order to defend his ideals. “Only our bodies were sent into exile; not our souls!”

Mordechai “the Jew” was a proud student of his great-uncle Judah. He knew that Torah law forbids a Jew from bowing to Haman (and the statuette which dangled from a chain around his neck), and for him that was the final word. Indeed Judah’s and Mordechai’s actions were vindicated as events unfolded—no harm came to either of them as a result of their brave conduct.

Leading by example, Mordechai succeeded in implanting this sense of pride in the hearts of the masses. When Haman issued his decree of annihilation, not one Israelite even considered abandoning his religion in order to be spared death. At that moment, we all became “Jews”. Accordingly, the Megillah is the first place where our nation as a whole is referred to as Jews.

The grand story of history concludes in similar fashion as the Purim story: we are here to tell the tale and they aren’t...
The name stuck. Because the next 2500 years would repeatedly test our “Jewishness”. Under countless regimes – both friendly and, as was usually the case, hostile – we struggled against friends and enemies who wished to impose their will upon us at the expense of our relationship with G-d. Again and again we proved ourselves true to G-d, earning the name Jew through oceans of blood and tears. 

The grand story of history concludes in similar fashion as the Purim story: we are here to tell the tale and they aren’t… The joy of Purim is greater than any other holiday because it tells the story of the nation who never allowed its soul to be shackled—the story of the Jew.2

Footnotes

  • 1. The conventional answer to this question is that the majority of “Jews” today are descendant from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin—the two tribes which comprised the “Kingdom of Judea.” The other ten tribes, the members of the “Northern Kingdom,” were exiled to unknown lands. (This doesn't mean that the other 10 tribes are not Jewish - they just were'nt called by the name "Jews" - they were called "Israelites" instead.) There must, however, be a deeper reason for the fact that the Chosen Nation has been called by this name for close to 2500 years!
  • 2. Based on a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

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Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Purim
A one-day holiday celebrated in late winter commemorating the miraculous deliverance of the Jewish people from a decree of annihilation issued by Persian King Ahasuerus in the year 356 BCE.
Megillah
A scroll. Usually a reference to the Book of Esther, one of the books of the "Written Torah", which is read--from a scroll--on the holiday of Purim.
Haman
Descendant of anti-Semitic tribe of Amalek and prime minister of the Persian Empire in the 5th century b.c.e. Schemed to annihilate all the Jews, and the holiday of Purim was established when the plot was foiled.
Esther
1. Jewish wife of Persian King Ahasuerus in the 4th century BCE. Foiled the plot of Haman, the prime minister, to exterminate all the Jews. The holiday of Purim commemorates this miraculous salvation. 2. One of the 24 Books of the Bible, which chronicles the abovementioned story.
Mordechai
Cousin of Queen Esther, and Jewish leader in the 4th century BCE. Played a large role in saving the Jews after Haman, the Persian prime minister, plotted to exterminate them all. The holiday of Purim was established to commemorate this miracle.
Jacob
Third of the three Patriarchs and father of the Twelve Tribes. Lived most his life in Canaan and died in Egypt in 1505 BCE. Also known by the name of "Israel."
Jerusalem
Established by King David to be the eternal capital of Israel. Both Temples were built there, and the third Temple will be situated there when the Messiah comes.
Judah
1. The fourth son of Jacob and Leah. He was blessed by Jacob to be the leader of the tribes. Consequently, the Davidic royal dynasty is from the tribe of Judah. 2. The southern part of Israel which was occupied by the Tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and always remained under the reign of the kings from the tribe of Judah.
Joseph
Firstborn son of Rachel and Jacob. Because he was Jacob's favorite son, his brothers conspired against him and sold him into slavery He ended up in Egypt where he became viceroy of the land, and eventually brought his entire family to Egypt. Died in 1451 BCE.
Temple
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.