Purim, Putin and Hope
For people who celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim it is impossible not to notice that the English spelling of Purim has only one letter of difference from Putin, the Russian President currently overseeing the murder and destruction in Ukraine and economic ruin of his own country. Many on social media are even noting that “Purim” is auto-correcting to “Putin” and vice versa. Like many people I look for meaning and patterns where it may be unwise to do so, lest it leads to a rabbit hole of conspiracy theory style thinking. However, in the case of Purim-Putin, I think it is interesting and worth exploring some connections that end up being hopeful.
The news of today is dark with daily video of suffering and death visited on the innocent people of Ukraine for no sensible reason. After 3 weeks there is no end in sight to the carnage, displacement and destruction. As much as I try to look away and try to live my life, I find it impossible to stop doom scrolling on Twitter. I’m looking for hope and not finding much. That’s where Purim comes in.
Purim is one of 2 Jewish holidays centered on the miraculous nature of Jewish survival. The other being the more well-known Hanukkah, which is about outnumbered Jewish forces vanquishing a far superior occupying force (also parallel to the Ukraine-Russia situation). Both Hanukah and Purim are rooted in historical events that took place after the Torah of Moses with the traditions for celebration being the rabbinic discussions of the Talmud. Both testify to the indestructible nature of the Jewish people, and universally as the resilience of human spirit yearning to be free of oppressive and murderous government.
Purim has its Megillah, a book (actually a scroll) notable for the absence of any explicit mention of Hashem/G-d. The Purim story has heroes and villains. Queen Esther, namesake of the Megillah, is the central hero of the story. Her name suggests “hidden,” which could refer to both the hiddenness of G-d in the Purim story or her own secret, that she is Jewish, unbeknownst to her husband, the King of Persia and the entire royal court. The other hero is Mordechai, who is specifically referred as “the Jew,” who was directly responsible for Esther becoming Queen of Persia, given that he encouraged her to enter the King’s harem when the previous Queen Vashti fell out of favor.
Haman, the villain, is the archetype for modern day anti-Semite. He was an advisor to the king, known as Achashverosh, who one day, after feeling slighted by Mordechai the Jew, who refuses to bow down to him, decides to pursue a genocidal decree against all the Jews of the Persian empire, effectively all the Jews of the world. For a substantial period after the decree, there is gloom and darkness among the Jewish people, but there is a turnabout and Haman ends up hoisted, literally on his own petard. Now back to the present day and its relationship to Purim.
Unlike Haman, Putin is not known so much for anti-Semitism, as much as he is for his contempt for Western democracy, warmongering and to some extent for his misogyny and homophobia. He’s also well known for murdering advocates for human rights in Russia in highly dramatic and alarming fashion. See: Boris Nemtsov, Anna Politkovskaya and the more recently, nearly killed Alexander Navalny. So Putin is in fact a villain, that is unless you are a believer in him as the savior of Western civilization, as some on the Western far right clearly see him.
The light, the hero in all this darkness is obviously Volodymyr Zelensky, the Jew. Ukraine is a nation with its own history of anti-Semitism, and a prominently Jewish Hero emerging there is either an amazing coincidence or a sign from above. I’m going with “sign from above,” with the obvious connection being that Putin’s inhumane invasion of the Ukraine took place during the month of Adar, the month of Purim and that Zelensky emerged as an unexpected lion who is continually and heroically speaking as a war-time leader and voice for all of humanity during his nation’s darkest hour. He’s refusing to bow down to Putin in spite of the apparent hopelessness of facing down the Russian war machine. At the outset of the invasion military experts, including Putin’s own generals predicted an easy march through Ukraine and a quick surrender. Now some are predicting that Putin has mad a fatal error and his downfall may be coming.
Now if Putin does fall, the credit goes to Zelensky, the Jew, in whose merit the Ukrainians are fighting and who is inspiring unprecedented unity among the freedom loving peoples of the West and is undoubtedly inspiring those living with repression in Russia and elsewhere.
In this essay, I have repeated the phrase, “Zelensky, the Jew” several times. This may make readers uncomfortable, but it is deliberate on my part because I am connecting the text of the Megillah of Esther to the present day events and Zelensky’s Jewishness and status as a descendant of Holcaust survisors, is a powerful counterpoint to Putin’s fake narrative of de-Nazification of the Ukraine. Zelensky’s survival in the face of numerous assassination attempts is another hopeful, semi-miraculous amongst all of this suffering. It’s Zelensky the Jew’s defiance that connects him to Mordechai, the Jew of the Megillah.
Like Mordechai, whose defiance of Haman precipitated the evil decree against the Jews, Zelensky’s defiance of Putin is the central reason for the evil invasion and bombardment of the Ukraine. Also, like Esther, the unlikely Jewish Queen of the Megillah, Zelensky is the unlikely Jewish President of the Ukraine.
And though things look terribly bleak for the Ukraine right now, it does indeed seem impossible for Putin to survive much longer. And I believe we are living through that turning point.
The turning point of the Megillah is in Chapter 6, when the King recognizes that one time Mordechai the Jew saved his life and ironically calls on Haman to honor Mordechai the Jew just days before Haman had planned to hang Mordechai. After this incident Haman goes home to his wife Zeresh, who tells him in no uncertain terms that “If Mordechai before whom you have begun to fall, is of Jewish descent, you will not prevail against him, but will undoubtedly fall before him.” Immediately after this, Haman is brought before the King and at the behest of Queen Esther is soon hung upon the gallows built for Mordechai and the Jews.
Putin’s downfall will not likely be as swift as Haman’s. It will certainly not happen this Purim. However, I am convinced that it will happen. It must happen, not just for the good of the Ukrainians but for all that suffer under leaders who don’t respect human rights, including the would be totalitarians of the West that advocate for discrimination and exclusion of women and sexual and racial minorities.
Purim is a joyous holiday, but it reminds us of the dark side of humanity. Violence, murder and suppression on behalf of cruel, inept leaders has happened throughout history and it is happening today. The call for universal human rights has never been fully realized, and progress toward that end is not something we can take for granted. The celebration of Purim has been used to find hope in times of darkness and find meaning once the times of darkness have receded. This has been the case throughout the tragic and miraculous story of the Jewish people, including the relatively recent Holocaust of 1938–45, when over 1 in 3 Jewish people disappeared from the face of the Earth. Many commentators noticed a parallel then between the Nazis hung at Nuremberg in 1946 and the hanging of the 10 sons of Haman in the Purim Megillah. One of those people to notice was the Nazi, Julius Streicher, who met his just end at Nuremberg after proclaiming “Purimfest 1946.”
My sense is that Putin knows he is doomed on account of Zelensky. He must be thinking that “if only I killed Zelensky sooner, I would be spared this fate.” Putin, the man who has killed so many with impunity, is now pondering his own demise with the same sense of bitterness as Streicher the Nazi. May it come sooner, rather than later and may brighter, more hopeful times be ahead.