The Joy of Purim

By Rabbi Mendy Piekarski

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The Joy of Purim
Families in Topanga gathered together at Chabad of Topanga to celebrate Purim the evening of March 7. They enjoyed a festive meal, heard the Megill ah read, ate hamentashen, and had face-painting for the children. Above, the children take turns hitting a pinata, which opened up to lots of Purim treats!
A few years ago I volunteered with friends to read the Megillah and celebrate Purim in the federal prison of North Carolina. It was an emotional experience to see how we brought joy to the lives of the prisoners as we went from the white-collar prison up to the medium-security prison. Although we were not allowed to bring in any food or hamentashen, we were able to sing songs, pray and chat with the prisoners. It was an experience I will never forget.   After reading the Megillah, I asked if anyone had any questions. One person asked if I knew of any stories about how Jews celebrated festivals during the Holocaust despite the Nazis. I felt where his question was coming from. Although we are not under Nazi rule anymore, there can always be instances in life when someone can feel deprived of the joy of Purim. I felt that his question was asking, “Is there really a way to celebrate Purim here in prison? Can I really feel the joy?” I related the incredible story of Rav Yaakov Schwartz, a rabbi and Torah scholar who was imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp during World War II. Rav Schwartz felt a deep responsibility to maintain the Jewish tradition and keep the spirit of his fellow prisoners alive. One of the customs of celebrating Purim is to read from a Megillah. A megillah is the story of Purim, how the Jews were saved despite Hamans’ evil decree to eradicate the Jews. It is written with ink on special parchment paper in the Hebrew language. Despite the danger, he decided to write a Megillah scroll by hand, using scraps of paper. But where would he find ink? One day a Nazi Soldier gave him a bottle of ink and instructed him to write numbers on the barracks where the Jews stayed at night. He now had the remaining ink to write a Megillah. A friend had brought a small siddur into the camp as well, from which he was able to copy down the megillah word for word. He worked on the scroll for a few months, despite the harsh conditions and near-constant threat of discovery. Finally, the Megillah was completed, just in time for Purim. Rav Schwartz organized a small gathering of fellow Jews and led them in a reading of the Megillah. It took place late at night, huddled in the corner of one of the barracks. It was a moment of profound joy and celebration, as the prisoners found strength and inspiration in the ancient story of Esther and the survival of the Jewish people.  After the war, Rav Schwartz was one of the few survivors of Buchenwald. He brought the Megillah with him to Israel, where it became a cherished relic of Jewish history and a testament to the strength and resilience of the Jewish people in the face of unimaginable adversity.  So, can one celebrate Purim even in the hard times of life? Yes. Even in prison? Yes. Does it take courage, commitment, and determination? Also, yes. Sometimes circumstances in life aren’t joyous or happy, yet we can still react and control our feelings to celebrate the joy of Purim. Let us remember the story of Rav Schwartz and the prisoners of Buchenwald as an example of how the human and Jewish spirit can overcome even the darkest of times. Let’s celebrate this Purim together with even more joy, despite many hardships that may be going on in the world. Let the joy of Purim usher in the time, when the world will be a truly happy place for all mankind.  Wishing you a meaningful and joyous Purim.

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March 17, 2023