Rabbi’s Essays

The Inverted Holiday of Purim

The best way to describe Purim is that it is serious silliness, or maybe intentional mindlessness. Look up “oxymoron” in any good dictionary, and it should say “Purim.” (If this is not the definition, then obviously there is something wrong with your dictionary.) Need I say more than quote Moses Isserles, the great Jewish legal authority of the sixteenth century: “On Purim a person should drink until he know not the difference between ‘Cursed by Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai.’ Some authorities say that it is not necessary to get as drunk as all that, but merely to drink more than one’s normal allowance, so that one may fall asleep and thus not know the difference. ” Isserles then adds the delightful reminder: “It is immaterial whether one drinks a lot or little, as long as one’s thoughts are directed to God.”

One might say, they don’t make Purims like they used to—a night of drunken carousing. To which, we should probably reply: “Thank God!” The heart of Purim is the book of Esther, and the heart of the Book of Esther is the all too familiar and repetitive theme of the rescue of the Jews from individuals or groups whose unfathomable hatred of our people is so obsessive they wish to annihilate us. Think how often through history Jews have had to be aware of the very precariousness of their lives; that at any time, they could be shaken from their beds and expelled from their homes, or worse, be sent to their doom at the point of a sword, a public hanging, or by gas chamber and ovens. And then, so often in history, as quickly as a threat would arise, it would suddenly be dispelled: it was only an idle threat, the anti-Semites did not have the power to carry out their intent, some other emergency or affair of state arose, etc.

Purim, you see, is not just a highly participatory form of Bible study. Rather, it has been a sort of psychodrama: a Hitchcockian descent into terror with the appropriate release of a happy ending. The fierceness of the traditional celebration has arisen precisely because it was so real!

Today, Purim celebrations are much more polite and restrained from some of the wretched excess of yore. Today, as well, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rescue of Jews from Ethiopia and Yemen, virtually the entire Jewish community in the world is secure. If we can no longer be in touch with the more visceral aspects of the holiday, we should nonetheless take note of some of the ethical and spiritual ones.

At the end of the Book of Esther, the Jews turn the tables of Haman’s minions and slaughter their enemies. This, of course, is the standard revenge fantasy. Who among us has endured a personal rival—someone who just seems to have taken an implacable dislike to us—and not wished that he or she received an appropriate comeuppance? But, Purim is not about revenge. In addition to eating, drinking, and making noise during the Megillah reading, Purim is observed by giving gifts-both to each other and to the poor. The harm we wish to do to those who would harm us, is channeled into help to those who need our help.

Purim is supposed to be observed on or near the 14th day of Adar. In Jewish “leap years” a Second Adar is added to the calendar. When that happens (roughly once each three years), Purim is moved to fall in the extra month. In doing so, a fixed month long distance is preserved between Purim and Passover. The heroes of Purim are Esther and Mordecai, a couple of average Jews. The hero of Passover is God. Purim is a very human celebration-almost pagan in its observance. As such, it is the first step on a stairway to transcendence. On Purim, we celebrate sheer survival. (As the poet Anthony Hecht wrote: “Merely to have survived is not an index of excellence. /Nor, given the way things go, even of low cunning.)” But, without simple survival, we cannot move on and up to the next level, that of human liberation.

Thus, I wish all of you a really happy, silly, inane, foolish and overstuffed Purim. After all, Pesach is not far behind.