This week Israelis celebrated the Feast of Purim. Sadly, most Israelis view this holiday as Israel’s Halloween—not the demonic part—an opportunity to dress up in crazy costumes. While Purim is a one-day holiday, you can see Israelis all week long going about their business dressed up as Peter Pan,
zombies or Fred Flintstone. Two of my favorites were a young man dressed up as a half orthodox Jew and half IDF soldier, highlighting the fact that most ultra orthodox don’t serve in the Army, and Miss Saudi Arabia, covered from head to toe in a burka.
More than Costumes
The festive celebration is rooted in an amazing story of bravery that we can read about in the Book of Esther. Esther is a young Jewish girl who was raised by her cousin Mordechai. Generations before, her family, with many others from Judah, was carried into exile to Babylon. In the course of time the Persians defeated the Babylonians. The King of Persia needed a new queen, thus there was a contest. Esther, the Jew, won the contest and went from obscurity to becoming the Queen of Persia.
Men of Courage
Now Mordecai was a man of extraordinary courage. In chapter three he refuses to bow down to Haman, second only to the king. We all know the phrase to ‘stand alone’—well, Mordecai literally stood alone as everyone else bowed to the egomaniac Haman. Most of us are like those who bowed. Most run from confrontation, Mordecai ran to it. Most of us need to build up courage to do something brave, whereas Mordecai was simply a brave man.
As England was being bombed by Hitler, Winston Churchill never considered defeat a possibility.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
In her darkest hours, England looked to their fearless leader for courage.
Eliezer Ben Yehuda was one of these men. He came from Lithuania to Israel with his new bride. At the time no one spoke Hebrew in Israel as a daily language. He pledged only to speak Hebrew from then on. He was persecuted and called a lunatic. The Orthodox condemned him for taking the holy language and defaming it. They held a ceremony and declared him cut off from Judaism and the Jewish people.
But he would not be dissuaded. Nothing could move him from his goal. He started a Hebrew school for girls and a newspaper. And because of him, yesterday, I preached this same message in Hebrew to native Hebrew speakers!
George Washington, Rosa Parks, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Abraham Lincoln, who took enormous risks for the country to end slavery, are just a few of these courageous people.
But most of us are not Dietrich Bonhoeffer, willing to stand against Hitler. Indeed, most of Germany went along with Hitler. Most of us are not born with such courage. Esther was like us—normal, ordinary, even if beautiful.
When Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman, Haman was so insulted and infuriated that he tricked the king into giving him permission to commit genocide against all Jews. When Mordecai sent word to Esther about Haman’s plan, pleading with her to intercede with the king, she replied.
“All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that they be put to death unless the king extends the gold scepter to them and spares their lives. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king.” (Esther 4:11)
In modern language, “Are you nuts! Do you want me to risk my life!” Her first instinct was to protect herself. That is normal. That is most of us. Most people are not looking to be hero. She understands that to go to the king without being called is a death sentence. Until now, her life has been a fairy tale: A young orphan girl from an immigrant family becomes queen. No one said anything about risking her life! But sometimes God calls the most ordinary people to rise up and be a champion.
Choosing to be Courageous
David was just a shepherd when he slew Goliath. Malala Yousafzai was also a mere teen when she stood up to the Taliban, who had banned females from education. They shot her and she survived and is now the youngest Nobel Prize laureate in history. I think of Frodo and Sam, two ordinary hobbits. They were not fighters like Aragorn, the king-warrior. But they were called upon to rise up—to choose courage over fear.
Mordecai responded to Esther with words that have become famous:
“Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14)
He challenges her with the thought, that maybe, just maybe, she was in that position for this very purpose, to intercede with the king on behalf of her people. It is even more remarkable when an ordinary person chooses to be courageous. It goes against that fallen human nature which seeks self-preservation above all. For those driven by destiny and a sense of courage it is second nature. Aragorn didn’t have to think twice about fighting, but the Hobbits had to choose courage. You have to choose courage.
Even the Courageous are Afraid
And to be clear, courage is not the absence of fear. On the contrary, courage is feeling all that fear and still choosing to go into battle. That is why Frodo is the star and not Aragorn and that is why Esther is more celebrated than her heroic cousin, Mordechai.
Esther in the end choose to risk her life, approached the king, received favor and saved her people from genocide. Haman was hung.
So what is the message of Purim? No matter who you are or how insignificant you feel, God can use you to do remarkable things, if you will choose courage.