Dear TEE community,
Purim is a complex holiday. Those of us who observed it as children learned about the story of Queen Esther saving her people, and celebrated it as sort of a Jewish Halloween with costumes and special treats. Many Reform Jews grew into adulthood with abbreviated megillah* readings and Purim spiels** that omitted both the implicit bawdiness and the explicit violence of the story.
While many of us are familiar with the Purim mitzvot of sh’lach manot, giving gifts of food (often including hamentaschen) to friends, and listening to the megillah reading, we are perhaps less aware of two additional requirements: (1) giving money to the poor and (2) having a festive meal at which, according to the Talmud, one is required to become intoxicated on Purim until the point that one cannot differentiate between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai,’ (i.e., know the difference between good and evil). Historically, Purim was also observed as a sort of “backwards day” where children would take on adult roles in the community, including as teachers and the rabbi, and adults would give sophisticated, nonsensical interpretations of Torah (think Jewish versions of Lewis Carroll), where nothing and no one was exempt from ridicule. Even the liturgy was (and sometimes still is) done in a humorous way.
So while, on the one hand, Purim is a holiday of lighthearted fun and a comic break from normal routine, it is also one that combines sex, violence, and drunkenness.
One way that I understand this combination has to do with the timing of the holiday. It occurs at the spring equinox, when winter is turning to spring and we look forward to warmer, easier weather. In North America, the snow is beginning to melt and in the Middle East, the rainy season is coming to an end. In both cases, a holiday at this time gives us a chance to let off steam, shake off the cabin fever of winter, and have a wild party.
At the same time, as our culture and perceptions have changed, so have the way we understand Purim. When I was young adult, I thought it was great fun to get drunk with my friends. Now, thank goodness, we have a much better awareness of the damage addiction does, including in the Jewish community. Even the most orthodox sources minimize this aspect of the holiday and caution against excess or unhealthy drinking. I find it completely understandable that at certain times in Jewish history it would have felt empowering to read a story about not only defeating but slaughtering the enemies of the Jews, especially when the opposite was happening in real life. However, it is deeply disturbing to hold up such a model at a time when we must work to change our understanding of justice from revenge to restoration.
For me, the most important meaning of Purim is to see it as a preparation for Passover, which is a month away. Purim gives us an opportunity to let go of the impulsive and uninhibited behavior that might be confused with freedom but is, in fact, its opposite. It also allows us to see and acknowledge the potentially harmful consequences of that behavior within ourselves.
I think there is also great significance in the humor of the holiday. It is remarkable to think of a tradition which creates an observance to make fun of itself. Learning to laugh at ourselves is an essential spiritual lesson. On a personal level, it was my children who gave me that gift – to see how ridiculous is the mask of pretension and pomposity we all put on at times.
This week’s Shabbat gathering will definitely emphasize the lighthearted side of the holiday, including a spiel by Davida Bloom and family, a trivia quiz from Carl Wetzstein, a Zoom game, and, of course, Purim music led by Charlene Sommers. I hope you’ll join us.
May this year’s Purim celebrations provide all of us with the opportunity to find meaning in a variety of ways as we welcome the beginning of a new season of growth.
Rabbi Drorah Setel
*The Hebrew word “megillah” means scroll and is used as shorthand when talking about the Purim reading of the Book of Esther which is traditionally done from a scroll.
**”Spiel” is Yiddish for “play” and Purim spiels are comic, often satirical, short plays based on the story of Esther, performed as part of Purim celebrations.