The holiday of Purim is coming up in a few days. It’s a holiday that baffles us because we don’t quite understand it’s contradictions. Somehow, it’s a holy day but it seems to celebrate the mundane. Where’s the holy in the holiday?
By celebrating the mundane, I mean the ways in which we are to observe this holiday don’t involve the usual observances. First, we’re not prohibited labour, so, like Hannukah, it’s easier to fit into our lives, it fits the mundane. Secondly, we fulfill its observance by listening to someone read us a book, dress in an unusual way, drink a lot and give food to people. The story of Purim revolves around an enemy of the Jewish people, Haman, who targets the Jews for extermination. We are saved because a Jewish woman, Esther, married a non-Jewish king, Ahashverosh, and made him jealous of Haman so he would kill him. While all of these events play out, the Jewish people, as a whole, are trying to get permission to return to the land of Israel and rebuild the Temple. Actually, it’s Ahashverosh who could grant them that permission and yet no one asks for it. He repeatedly asks Esther what he can do to make her happy and she never suggests giving her the province Israel is in. It just doesn’t seem to occur to anyone.
And that’s only the beginning of the crazy. When the king doesn’t know how to handle his first queen, Vashti, he takes marital advice from his…eunuchs. When Haman doesn’t know how to handle his political dilemma, he turns to his male and female lovers. No one seems to know where to go for good advice. When Haman wants to exterminate the Jews, the king empowers him with his ‘Ring of Power’…and when Mordecai wants the Jews to save themselves the king empowers him with the same ‘Ring of Power’. When Haman thinks the king is talking about him, he’s actually talking about Mordecai and when the gallows is built for Mordecai, it’s actually going to be used for Haman.
You also can’t help but wonder where all the other Jews are. In Hanukkah, the leading Jewish figures have a group of people with them. At Pesach, all the Jewish people are redeemed. This holiday seems to revolve around 2 people…where are the rest of the Jews?
And let’s not forget that the hero of the story, Esther, can only do what she did because she married a non-Jewish king.
I remember celebrating Purim as a teenager. I went to a Jewish high school that was pretty religiously observant – girls and boys were in separate classes and girls weren’t allowed to study Talmud. We used to play fun games about it, like drawing six pictures of a man with a beard, kippah and glasses. Then we had to try and match the names of our teachers with the ‘correct’ picture (all the pictures were the same). But when Purim was approaching, you could sense it in the air. The school Purim party involved wild costumes. Several of our teachers would wear their wives’ wigs while a few others wore women’s nightgowns over their suits. In one case I remember seeing baby doll pyjamas over a black suit with long blond hair down the back until the person turned around and I saw the long black beard in the front.
And I haven’t even touched on all the drinking…
But this wasn’t merriment, this was mitzvah.
Turning the day into a day of crazy is exactly how the Talmud says we should commemorate it. Because the story involves confusion of gender identities, our costumes will push on that line. Because Haman and Mordecai step in and out of each other’s shoes all the time, we are told to drink until we don’t know the difference between them. And somehow we answer it all by giving treat bags to each other.
SO WHAT’S BEHIND ALL THIS MADNESS!?!
The answer to everything lies in the first line of the Megillah: “It was, in the days of Ahashverosh (Xerxes), that is the Ahashverosh who ruled 127 provinces from India to Cush.” The line we don’t pay attention to is actually the most important line of the book. It states the theme. Within the 127 provinces is Israel…and it’s never mentioned. This is a book of exile.
For Jews in exile, it is a world of confusion and chaos. Lines are blurred, definitions are floating and heroes become villains in an instant. Assimilation is real and Israel fades from the top of our priority list. The Sages say that all those drinking parties happening in the palace, and throughout the realm, are populated by Persians and Jews. The Jews are indistinguishable from the Persians. The objects from our Temple were brought out as trophies in these parties and we celebrated with the rest of them. Our holiest of objects being treated like the Stanley Cup at a party, and we were in there drinking with the best of them. There is no community, there is only society and it’s a foreign one.
Purim is a cautionary tale that Mordecai and Esther send to every Jewish generation through time. They beseech us to read their story so we will never forget that exile means we are sitting on shifting sands.
The Sages push it into the absurd so we won’t miss their point. In fact, the name of the holiday, Purim, means Lottery. It’s what Haman did to choose which day to murder all the Jews. We named the holiday after something the villain did! We named the holiday ‘The Lottery’ – the message screams to us each time we celebrate it – living in exile is a crapshoot.
But they also gave us the answer. Take the day of crazy and answer it by creating a community of celebration. Show up at each other’s homes and give out treat bags. Get together for festive meals and discuss the crazy of everything while we feel the strength from each other. The height of irony would be if someone turned down an invitation to enjoy a Purim meal at someone’s home because they weren’t part of that particular Jewish community. On this holiday all denominational and philosophical differences should fade into the background as we eat, celebrate and remind ourselves that we rely on each other for stability.
Wouldn’t it be something to celebrate if the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Liberal, LGBTQ, Humanistic and every other group on the Jewish spectrum got together on one day out of the year, suspended all the distinctions and reinforced the nation! It’s beautiful to think that the zaniness of Purim could be the open door for a day of Jewish community with no boundaries and no judgments.
So, let’s celebrate the day of Lottery, Purim, the mirror we hold to the world we live in. We often think that the ancient world was a ridiculous place. We marvel at how brutally and nonsensically people behaved then and how modern and advanced we are today. In that moment remember the messages of Purim and recognize how timeless the message is of how crazy the world can get. If that doesn’t do the job, just turn on CNN.
For more Purim fun, check out our latest YouTube video: Am I Crazy Or It Purim?
Looking for more opportunities to learn from Rachael? We’re currently accepting registrations for our Spring Lunchtime Learning Series – Check out the Centre Happenings page for all the information!