General Topics

Why Purim Matters


Purim matters so much this year. It tells a never ending story. We were threatened with destruction. We responded by finding ways to combat the threat.  We did not capitulate. We called out evil as it was. We celebrated our survival by emphasizing charity, friendship, and gratitude, strengthening our communities, all positive qualities, building not destroying. We did not rejoice in needless pain or seeing others suffer. Purim makes another point. That one reaction to evil is to laugh at it. Not to exclude fighting it of course. But to show that evil however horrific, can also be laughed at. There are many other ways of fighting evil.  Just think of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Often as effective as serious analysis. 

Purim makes another point. Whether the events took place or not, whether they were based on fact or fantasy, they show how old we were as a nation, living under the Persians with a culture and religion of our own, as free equal citizens, not as under Christianity and Islam, second rate. And this alienation combined with helplessness continued until we had a home of our own.

Humor runs through the Megillah as well as darkness. The story is supposed to have happened some 2,500 years ago in the Persian Empire. Perhaps Mordechai and Esther were not real people, but symbols based on Marduk and Astarte, Babylonian gods. Historians will argue about whether it is historically accurate or not. Who was Achashverosh? Could this inebriated, credulous, short-tempered, lovesick monarch be a great Emperor who invaded Greece? Was this why he needed money and taxes? The Talmud itself enjoyed light-hearted speculations. Was Esther Mordechai’s wife, or adopted daughter? What did Esther eat in the Palace? Was it treif, supervised kosher food or just vegetarian? What were Vashti’s motives for refusing to appear before the king? Was she the precursor of feminism? Why did the king respond with a pompous, formal declaration telling the men to stop being pansies and show who was boss in their own homes? Haman gets a chamber pot poured over him. His wife abandons him. Advisors contradict each other. Why do the girls need a whole year of beauty treatment ( and perhaps cosmetic surgery) before the King got anywhere near them? And was Esther, a determined, courageous girl beneath her sweet passive beautiful exterior? It all sounds positively Trumpian.

Humor is important, and religion in particular which often takes itself so seriously, needs to be able to laugh at itself sometimes. Life is tough. One of the functions of religious ritual is to help us enjoy life as well as to reign in our selfish egos a little and make us more aware of other people and other standards.  We are surrounded by suffering, anxiety, uncertainty, and concern for the future. How should we respond? By becoming depressed and suicidal? No, Religion is often seen as stern and moralizing and boring and dull. Yet if you think about it whether it is Purim or Chanukah, Pesach or Sucot, we are exposed to powerful human themes and experiences of the senses and asked to reflect on them. And celebrate with festivity, amid good food, wine, family, and friends. This is what can make religion fun as well as educational, uplifting, and comforting. 

I fully understand the right of the Palestinians to have their narrative and I am committed to my Jewish-Israeli narrative. I deeply regret that two people who share the same home have not been able over 76 years to negotiate a peaceful settlement. Both sides blame each other and believe they are right. It looks like we will never agree and will both continue to suffer. I wish it were otherwise. But I am a Jew and proud of it and where there are conflicting narratives of course I will stand by my people. This is a matter of loyalty.

We must remember those who are and have suffered and perished. Those still in danger and the hostages who are being subjected to daily sexual abuse and torture. But we must also keep our spirits up and not forget we owe it to all those martyrs who have perished to fight for our survival. Neither pain nor depression should determine how we, privileged to live in safety and freedom, should be thankful for what we have.  We are all survivors (in a manner of speaking). And that is why we must allow ourselves to enjoy the fun of Purim, good food, good wine, and good cheer, with masks, and focus on being good people even as we have to fight.  Which is why we must celebrate Purim more than ever this year.

Happy Purim to all Israel, LeChayim to life! And Am Yisrael Chai.