Purim begins tomorrow night, and his the holiday that celebrates the events of the biblical book of Esther. The Persian Jewish community lives under King Ahasuerus, and eventually comes under threat from the king’s adviser Haman who issues a decree to kill the Jews. Esther, who at this time has become the Queen, risks her life to confront the king and reveals for the first time that she is Jewish. The king reverses the decree, saves the Jews and punishes Haman for his act.
This is, of course, the cleaned up summary of the story. The story itself is rife with sexual exploitation, gender inequality, public humiliation, extreme violence and oppressive use of power.
And at the same time the story contains female empowerment, reclamation of identity, freedom of oppression, liberation from tyranny and justice for a minority population.
In short, it is a mixed bag, a complex story.
The celebration of Purim is meant to be one of unabashed frivolity. We are meant to dress up in costume, tell funny jokes and stories, play games, eat and drink–all while reading the megillah (scroll) which contains the story. So why such ribaldry while marking such a challenging story?
One the one hand, the story is a pure celebration of escape from harm. A decree was issued, the decree was averted and so we celebrate. We do not lament what might have been, but we celebrate what actually is. Did Haman want to destroy the Jews, yes. Did he succeed, no.
A more subtle understanding is that fine balance between the yes and the no, the decree issued and the decree averted. One of the reasons we dress in costume is to represent something we are not, to show the topsy turvy nature of life. We are one thing, we dress as something else, to show that what might have been was not, and what could be, could not. Life doesn’t unfold like Haman’s plot–things change. And life is filled with both those things we are proud of, and those we would wish to eradicate.
In approaching Purim, I sometimes think that celebrating an almost certain destruction is hard. There is, after all, an undercurrent of antiSemitism in this story that seems all to familiar. With recent events in France and Norway, and also closer to home with increased incidents of anti-Jewish bias on college campuses, we bring to our Purim celebrations a bit of caution, of wariness, of pragmatism. The hatred the fueled Haman still lives today, and we should not turn away from nor make light of it.
And the other negatives underlying the story–female exploitation and violence, for example–are others blemishes on our society that still exist today.
These are, unfortunately, not going away fast. If we see them today as we do in this ancient biblical book, then we know that these ills have long staying power. We remain vigilant when we see them in our own day and age, and call them out when necessary. At the same time, we go on living our topsy-turvy lives with all of its challenges and blessings.
And in doing so, we can take a cue from the traditionalmitzvot (sacred acts) associated with celebrating Purim. Jewish tradition teaches that there are four main mitzvotwe are to observe during Purim:
1. Read the megillah
2. Have a seudah (festive meal)
3. Send m’shaloch manot (food gifts to friends)
4. Give tzedakah
By examining these, we see that these four are not just guidelines as to how to celebrate Purim, but these four give us guidance at how we are to approach life in general, with all of its faults, and all of its hatreds. In other words, by doing these four we:
1. Tell the stories that we see, call out oppression when we see it, herald acts of courage and justice when necessary.
2. Celebrate all the good things that life has to offer, and offer gratitude for the blessings we do receive.
3. Build positive relationships and allies with our neighbors, friends and loved ones through action, through compassion, by reaching out.
4. Always be mindful of those in need in our communities, and make the time and the effort to reach out and lend a hand.
And by doing so we build a better life, one that is able to hopefully overcome the adversities we face.
Chag Purim Sameach! A wonderful and sweet Purim!