It is impossible to define Judaism in a simple way – and the word doesn’t have a Hebrew equivalent. If we reflect on our complex Jewish inheritance, we can see that it is made up of tales and rules: a rich heritage of aggadah and halachah – both of which inform Jewish teaching.
The festival of Pesach is a marvellous example of this combination of aggadah and halachah: On the one hand, there is the story of the Exodus, and everything that led up to it; related in the Torah and encapsulated in the wonderful narration that accompanies the seder – the Haggadah; on the other hand there are the rules related to the festival; in particular, those governing the removal of chameitz – leaven – and the eating of matzah – unleavened bread.
We also find this combination of aggadah and halachah at work in the festival of Purim, which occurs a month before Pesach. But when it comes to Purim, for most Jews, the story element seems to take precedence over the rules about exchanging gifts and giving tz’dakah to the poor – even though the story is such a very tall tale; a fairy tale, indeed – encompassing all the usual gruesome bits that seem to make up the crucial ingredients of fairy tales in every culture.
Because the Book of Esther reads like such a fairy tale, because even the story of the Exodus includes such fairy-tale elements – like the ten plagues and the sea dividing – there are those who would say that these stories are ‘untrue’ or ‘unhistorical’. But there is more to ‘truth’ than facts and figures. The Exodus story tells us truths about oppression and liberation and how these experiences shaped our people’s understanding of our purpose in the world. Even the fairy-tale world conjured up in the Book of Esther relates truths about our people’s experience of living as a vulnerable minority in societies governed by despots and tyrants.
But it’s not just that these tales tell us truths – they also dramatise the human condition, and as such speak to everyone and to all peoples: the Exodus story is not just about the enslavement of our ancestors in Egypt; the Book of Esther is not just about anti-Semitism in the pre-modern near-East; both stories are about universal themes: cruelty, suffering, indifference, fear, despair, courage, hope, daring – and, ultimately, the triumph of the human spirit against the odds.
Purim Samei’ach! – and Pesach Samei’ach!