PSALM 22 – THE PURIM STORY IN POETRY
There is a rabbinic tradition that links Psalm 22 with Purim.
The psalm is headed, “For the Leader, upon Ayelet HaShachar”. This phrase literally means “the hind of the morning”, which some views regard as a musical instrument or a melody.
The Talmud, however, understands it as a reference to Esther (Yoma 29a/b, Meg. 15b), indicating that this is a poem about the Purim events. Some scholars regard “Esther” as a name for the morning star.
It seems like a paradox when we link a happy festival with a cry for help.
The psalm calls to God, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? You are far from my help at the words of my cry. My God, I call by day but you do not answer – by night, but I have no respite”.
The Midrash thinks that it is a dawn song, and “Ayelet HaShachar” is a way of saying, “When the day dawns”.
We still, however, wonder how this can have any connection with Purim. The Midrash suggests an answer: when things were bleak for the Jews of Persia, “Esther shone like the light of the morning for Israel”.
An alternative view is that it was God Himself who was the hind of the morning, “leaping up like a hind to in the midst of darkness to give light to the Children of Israel”.
What is happening seems to answer a question which hardly anyone asks. The question is, “What was life really like for the Jews of Persia at the time of Mordechai and Esther?”
Hardly anyone ever raises that question but the answer seems to be that it was an embattled community, subject to persecution and oppression. They had a struggle to live and survive as Jews. They cried to God by day and by night.
A Persian Jew said with the Psalmist, “I am a worm, not a man – a reproach of men, despised by people”. What the antisemites said was, “He cast himself on the Lord – let Him deliver him!”
Haman didn’t suddenly turn antisemitic: he oppressed the Jews long before hatching his plot to kill them all, and the antisemitism was even endemic during the time of his predecessors.
The Midrash sees that the psalm assures itself that “the light of Israel” would burn up Israel’s enemies. It says that “as a man measures, so is he measured”. The Midrash says that the ten sons who were hanged with Haman were only part of his progeny and all his hundred sons were overtaken by punishment.
The Jews cried to God as they did in the midst of the darkness they suffered in so many parts of the Diaspora. God came to their assistance, and the Psalmist said, “I will declare Your name to my brethren, I will praise You amidst the assembly”.
Choosing this psalm for Purim was a beacon of hope for embattled communities in all ages.
Many communities that escaped from danger instituted local Purims to mark their deliverance.
Books about the history of Purim often narrate these events, but they do not always explain that the antisemites responsible for imperilling the Jews frequently deliberately modelled themselves on Haman.
An example is a German baker, Vincenz Fettmilch, who after announcing in 1614 that he was the new Haman, went on to foment attacks on the Jews of Worms and then Frankfort. The Jews were saved because of the intervention of the local governor, who, fearing that the riots would get out of hand, sent in his troops to suppress the attacks.
Like the original Haman, Fettmilch was hanged, and the Frankfort community proclaimed the institution of Vincenz Purim.
These are some other famous local Purims:
• The Gunpowder Purim. In December, 1804, there were terrible explosions at the gunpowder factories situated near the Jewish section of Vilna. Amongst those who survived were the Danzig family from whom emanated one of the great compilations of Jewish law.
• The Snow Purim observed by the Jews of Tunis to mark a huge snow storm in 1891 in which one of the synagogues provided food and shelter for many people. When the storm abated and people could go home, the synagogue roof collapsed but (Baruch HaShem) no-one was hurt.
• The Window Purim which emanated from Hebron in 1741. The local authorities had imposed a massive tax on the Jewish community. The Jews, unable to find the necessary money, assembled to pray, and the next morning a lad found on the synagogue window sill a bag full of money which was used to pay the ransom and save the community.