Purim, a joyful celebration of Jewish victory over a decree of death, is interconnected to Passover, a joyful celebration of the Jewish people’s redemption from slavery. These are the earliest accounts of antisemitism. In one, an evil man rises up through the ranks of the Persian court and convinces its king to target the Jews. In the other, a new king arose who did not know Yosef. Both experiences highlight the quintessential antisemitic tropes which have followed us over the centuries.
In Persia we were, “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” (Megillah 3:8). While in Egypt it was feared, “they multiply and in the event of war, they also join themselves to those who hate us and fight against us, and depart from the land” (Shemot 1:10). In highlighting the Jewish people’s triumph over destruction both holidays call attention to our identity as a distinct nation.
In both stories, the Jewish people are redeemed thanks to the efforts of a single individual. Both Esther and Moshe were connected to royalty and could have ignored their Jewish heritage for their own sake. Whether it be Moshe or Esther, our champions were brave figures who challenged the decrees of royalty to protect and defend their people. They were called to take a stand, risking their own lives by doing so. Rather than shirk from this responsibility, they set an example of leadership through the ages.
Shortly after the decree against the Jews was made public, Mordecai rent his garments and donned sackcloth, then sent a message to Queen Esther. In a deeply visceral moment in the Purim story, he encourages her to speak up for the Jewish people saying:
Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis (Megillah 4:13-14).
Mordecai is telling Esther, should she flinch from this duty, the people will still be saved and she will remain alone – you and your father’s house will perish. Not only would she die but she and her father’s house will be separated from her people who will miraculously live. Juxtaposed to this we see the wicked son in our Passover Haggadah asks, What is this worship to you (Shemot 12:26). As we are taught:
To you’ and not ‘to him.’ And since he excluded himself from the collective, he denied a principle [of the Jewish faith]. And accordingly, you will blunt his teeth and say to him: ‘For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt’ (Shemot 13:8). ‘For me’ and not ‘for him.’ If he had been there, he would not have been saved. (Pesach Haggadah, Maggid, The Four Sons)
Here, the wicked son is separated from his people because he refused to stand with them. By rejecting his Jewish identity he is also rejecting the opportunity for salvation.
A Jew does not need to be a great leader or risk their life for the good of the nation to be part of a redemption. A Jew simply needs to stand with her people, to identity as part of them. Maimonides lists all those who have no share in the world to come. This list includes informers, deniers of the coming Messiah, those who stop circumcisions, those who secede from the congregation, and others. About them he states: the following have no share in the world to come but suffer excision and loss of identity. (Mishneh Torah, Halacha Teshuvah, 3:6).
Mordecai’s warning to Esther and what we are taught in the haggadah about the wicked son suggest that a person does not suffer excision and loss of identity as a result of their actions. Rather, it is an active choice they make in taking those actions. Denying one’s identity with the Jewish people is actively performing self-excision. It is a natural consequence: denying your identity with the Jewish people is separating yourself from the community.
Adhering to our Jewish identity connects us to our people, our history, and the world to come. Those who reject this identity, this connection, are cut away from it; not as a punitive measure per se, but as a consequence of their own actions. Publicly standing with the Jewish people, even in times of danger and threat, is a strong statement of identity. Observing ritual performances, regardless of the risks and costs, is a declaration of Jewish identity. What the story of Purim and Pesach teaches is that when every individual identifies themselves as part of the Jewish community, we are unvanquished.