Purim, the Book of Esther and Human Rights

9 Mar, 2020 | Blogs, Latest

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by Moses Seitler, Education and Community Engagement Officer at René Cassin

A summary of most Jewish holidays is they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat! Purim follows this basic and brilliant structure, but there may be more to it than that. On a closer reading, the book of Esther and the practices of Purim reveal human rights to be at their heart.

The story begins with the Queen Vashti standing up to her drunken husband. Her refusal to display her beauty at the behest of the feasting King, is, despite her cruel fate, an inspiration to those who value the right to privacy and the inherent value of dignity. Not even the all-encompassing power of the King can sanction Vashti’s objectification, nor does the pressure of baying guests permit her to be instrumentalized. Vashti pays the price, but we can take pride in her commitment to her principles.

Beyond the right to privacy and a respect for human dignity, the centrepiece of the book of Esther is Haman’s failure to ‘destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews’ (Esther.3:13). By jeering at his name, we express our disdain towards the wicked Haman, but also our disgust at his motives: hatred of Jews, and the idea that the King shouldn’t tolerate a people who observe different laws. In so doing, of course, we are also celebrating the right to life, the freedom of religion and the equal worth of all human beings. Perhaps we can learn a lesson from Haman – who ends up hanged from the gallows he had constructed for his enemies. The lesson that genocide, and the discrimination which undergirds it, can never be justified, and that we must resist it now whenever we see it.

The book of Esther also takes place in a revealing context. The 18th Century Rabbi the Vilna Gaon states that the Megillah reveals G-d was looking after the Jews in exile. Having been thrown out of Israel, and after the Temple was brutally destroyed by King Nebuchadnezer, the Jews relied on divine protection. The Torah teaches us that we must emulate G-d and go in his ways (‘Vahalachta Bidrachav’Ki Tavo 28:9), which poses a question; Should we protect those in exile as G-d protected the Jews in exile? Today, nations across the world are stretched by refugees and migrants fleeing persecution and war. We can learn from the Megillah that just as G-d provides protection to the Jewish exiles, so too should we endeavour to protect those in exile today. René Cassin seeks to draw on that Jewish experience by campaigning for change to the law around indefinite immigration detention in the UK.

It’s not only the text that features principles of human rights. Purim is a festival of food, charity and joy. The obligation of Matanot Le’evyonim – to give charity to at least two poor people on Purim – is a direct commandment to look outside of the self and look out for others. So often we can fall into the trap of seeing ourselves as the centre of the universe, but here Jewish law directs us, as it so often does, to the interests and protection of others. 

Similarly, as ever with Jewish festivals, food plays an important role in the celebrations. We are instructed to observe a ‘day of feasting and merrymaking’ (Esther 9:22), and to send food packages to our neighbours (Mishloach Manot). When we leave our basket of food by our neighbours’ door, will we think of those denied the right to food? Will our gifts to the poor protect that right? If food plays such a central role in this festival and our traditions, how important is it for us to protect the right to food for all people, all of the time? So too with our merriment and play on Purim – when will all children, not just those in shul with that annoying gragger, enjoy their right to play, as is their right (rights of the child article 31)?

It’s at moments like Purim that make real Monsieur René Cassin’s belief that ‘human rights are an integral part of the faith and tradition of Judaism’. It is because of this connection that the organisation René Cassin raises awareness and campaigns for change in specific human rights areas that resonate with our Jewish experience and values. May we all be grateful for this connection, and have a Purim sameach!

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