Purim, which begins tonight at sundown and runs through Sunday night, is considered the happiest day of the year on the Jewish calendar — the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar.
We commemorate the story of Queen Esther in Persia, who, with the help of her uncle Mordechai, was brave enough to reveal her Jewish identity and confront King Ahasuerus about the evil plan of his adviser, Haman, to have all the Jews killed using a lottery system (Purim is Hebrew for "lot").
One of the lessons of Purim is that the Jews at the time were in the best possible political position: Their queen was Jewish, Mordechai was a high minster in the government, the king ruled over 127 countries and had tremendous power. Yet, we find in this story the greatest threat to Jews in the history of the world, despite their seemingly good standing at the time.
During the Holocaust, Germany took countries one by one, but it didn't control so much of the world, as in the Purim story.
But while the Jews in Persia may have been doing well physically, they were suffering spiritually. They had lost their connection to Judaism and tried to blend in with the culture around them.
With Mordechai's help, Esther encouraged the Jews to fast and pray with her for three days. Then she confronted the king with Haman's plan. He sent Haman to the gallows and issued a decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves against any attackers.
After fasting for three days, Esther's beauty may have faded, but she realized that if they would fast, repent and pray, that ultimately God would help them.
"The deeper point behind it is the Jews weren't doing what they were supposed to do," said Rabbi Yossi Eber with Chabad Jewish Center of West Pasco. "If we're doing right spiritually, we'll be doing right physically. If we're connected to God, to the Torah and the mitzvot," the religious commandments for Jews, "we won't have such problems."
He added that it's important to be comfortable with who you are, rather than trying to be someone else.
While our family doesn't celebrate secular holidays like Halloween, Purim is one way we combine costumes, candy and parties with the deeper meaning of our survival and faith in God.
It's traditional to have carnivals and costume parties, and basically to eat, drink and be merry on Purim.
It's also traditional to eat hamantashen — triangular cookies filled with jelly, poppy seed, chocolate and other fillings — and to send food packages to friends and family.
I spent last Sunday preparing Purim baskets with a group of women at Young Israel-Chabad in Palm Harbor, along with my young daughter, who took great pride in helping to cut ribbon and sort containers of hamantashen. I felt a connection to the women of the community who gathered together to share in this mitzvah, as well as the generations of Jewish women before me.
On Sunday, we'll make our way to a couple of Purim parties and hear a reading of the Megillah — the story of Esther detailing the miracle of our survival and the inspiration behind the holiday.
Jewish girls throughout Pasco County, the Tampa Bay area and around the world will dress up like Queen Esther, and boys like Mordechai and King Ahasuerus.
The holiday gives children real superheroes to imagine and emulate, a chance to give to others, and a sense of pride in who they are.
Mindy Rubenstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.