Purim Thoughts


During his time as Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Sacks often spoke on BBC radio, addressing both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. It is remarkable to read his words about antisemitism and how we relate to our enemies in the year 2024 – it reads as if he had written these remarks today! We publish here two of Rabbi Sacks’ teachings, that were first broadcast on BBC Thought For The Day.

Remember the Past, Put it Behind You, and Build a Better Future

If you’re driving through a Jewish area this Saturday night or Sunday, don’t be surprised if you see lots of children in the streets wearing fancy dress and masks, or people going from house to house delivering presents of food and drink. The reason is that we’ll be celebrating Purim, the most boisterous and exuberant of all Jewish festivals.

Which is actually very odd indeed, because Purim commemorates the story told in the book of Esther, when Haman, a senior official of the Persian Empire, persuaded the king to issue a decree to annihilate all Jews, young and old, men, women and children, on one day: a warrant for genocide. Thanks to the vigilance of Mordechai and the courage of Esther, the decree was not carried out, and ever since, we’ve celebrated by reading the story, having parties, giving to the poor and sharing gifts of food with friends.

I used to be very puzzled by this. Why such exhilaration at merely surviving a tragedy that was only narrowly averted? Relief, I can understand. But to turn the day into a carnival? Just because we’re still here to tell the story?

Slowly, though, I began to understand how much pain there has been in Jewish history, how many massacres and pogroms throughout the ages. Jews had to learn how to live with the past without being traumatized by it. So they turned the day when they faced and then escaped the greatest danger of all into a festival of unconfined joy, a day of dressing up and drinking a bit too much, to exorcize the fear, live through it and beyond it, and then come back to life, unhaunted by the ghosts of memory.

Purim is the Jewish answer to one of the great questions of history: how do you live with the past without being held captive by the past? Ours is a religion of memory, because if you forget the past, you’ll find yourself repeating it. Yet it’s also a future-oriented faith. To be a Jew is to answer the question, “Has the messiah come?,” with the words, “Not yet.”

There are so many parts of the world today where ancient grievances are still being played out, as if history were a hamster wheel in which however fast we run we find ourselves back where we started. Purim is a way of saying, remember the past, but then look at the children, celebrate with them, and for their sake, put the past behind you and build a better future.

  • This is a transcript of Rabbi Sacks’ broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, February 22, 2013.


Purim and the Longest Hatred

In a few days’ time we’ll be celebrating the Jewish festival of Purim. It’s a joyous day. We have a festive meal; we send presents to our friends; and gifts to the poor, so that no one should feel excluded. Anyone joining us on Purim would think it commemorates one of the great moments in Jewish history, like the Exodus from slavery or the Revelation at Mount Sinai.

Actually though, the truth is quite different. Purim is the day we remember the story told in the book of Esther, set in Persia in pre-Christian times. It tells of how a senior member of the Persian court, Haman, got angry that one man, Mordechai, refused to bow down to him. Discovering that Mordechai was a Jew, he decided to take revenge on all Jews and persuaded the King to issue a decree that they should all – young and old, men, women and children – should be annihilated on a single day. Only the fact that Esther, Mordechai’s cousin, was the King’s favorite allowed her to intercede on behalf of her people and defeat the plan.

Purim is, in other words, the festival of survival in the face of attempted genocide. It wasn’t until way into adult life that I realized that what we celebrate on Purim is simply the fact that we’re alive; that our ancestors weren’t murdered after all.

Like many of my generation born after the Holocaust, I thought antisemitism was dead; that a hate so irrational, so murderous, had finally been laid to rest. So it has come as a shock to realize in recent months that it’s still strong in many parts of the world, and that even in Britain yesterday a cleric appeared in court charged with distributing a tape calling on his followers to kill Jews.

What is it about Jews – or black people, or Roma, or foreigners – that causes them to be hated? The oldest explanation is probably the simplest: because we don’t like the unlike. As Haman put it, “Their customs are different from those of other people.” And that’s why racial or religious hate isn’t just dangerous. It’s a betrayal of the human condition. We are different. Every individual, every culture, every ethnicity, every faith, gives something unique to humanity. Religious and racial diversity are as essential to our world as biodiversity. And therefore, I pray that we have the courage to fight prejudice, of which antisemitism is simply the oldest of them all. Because a world that can’t live with difference is a world that lacks room for humanity itself.

  • This is a transcript of Rabbi Sacks’ broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, February 22, 2002.


The Rabbi Sacks Legacy perpetuates the timeless and universal wisdom of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks as a teacher of Torah, a leader of leaders and a moral voice. Explore the digital archive, containing much of Rabbi Sacks’ writings, broadcasts and speeches, at www.rabbisacks.org, and follow The Rabbi Sacks Legacy on social media @RabbiSacks.

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