The Jewish comedian Alan King once said, “A summary of every Jewish holiday: they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!”
I’ve heard this line repeated too many times to count to explain why and how we celebrate various Jewish holidays. Purim, coming up next week, is no exception, although we could modify King’s statement to say, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s drink!”
We would not be wrong…sort of. Our tradition tells us,
“When the month of Adar arrives, we increase our joy,” meaning, during the month of Purim, we celebrate. Why?
As the story goes, the Jews living in Persia of yore lived happily and peacefully with their neighbors. They did well for themselves in Persian society… so much so, they even had one of their own in the royal palace, Queen Esther!
But Haman, advisor to King Ahasuerus, hated the Jews and turned a personal act of defiance by one Jew, Mordechai, into a vendetta against the Jews as a whole. He cast a lot (in Hebrew, pur, which is how we get the name for Purim) and on the randomly selected day, planned on carrying out a genocide against the Jews, all under the unsuspecting Ahasuerus’ authority. When Esther finally exposed herself as a Jewish person and revealed Haman’s plan, she was able to save the Jews from annihilation. The Jews therefore celebrated on the day they were supposed to die (the 14th of Adar, which we now celebrate as Purim) “with drinking and rejoicing, and sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.” The Jews are also said to have killed thousands of Persians in retaliation in addition to Haman’s entire family (this troubling part can be found in Chapter 9).
The Book of Esther is told as a satirical story from the standpoint of the victors (fun fact: Queen Esther is the first recorded female author in all the Torah). The book is written with the same jest – fanciful plot twists, a dopey, drunken king with an irate advisor, and exaggerated circumstances – that we’re supposed to bask in during this month. Though joy and celebration is at the heart of what makes Purim so fun, what we often forget when we celebrate it is the underlying vulnerability behind the Persian Jews’ merrymaking, the catching of a collective deep breath after a deadly near miss.
Indeed, when Haman’s genocidal plan was announced, the Book of Esther says, “the city of Shushan [the capital] was bewildered.” Why, after all this time of living undisturbed as loyal, integrated citizens, were all the Jews suddenly separated out and targeted? “How could this happen here?!” must have been going through people’s minds. And although we know the story’s conclusion after the fact, imagine what it must have been like to know the day of your death and not be sure if you’d really be saved.
Capturing the quick shift from fear to joy that is behind Purim, Rabbi Irving Greenberg writes,
“Purim…celebrated (and admitted!) the narrow margin by which Jews snatched meaning from the jaws of tragedy and absurdity in history. The humor, mockery, and tongue-in-cheek tone of the Book of Esther and of the holidays is a perfect way to express the ambiguities and reversals built into the occasion…humor can be the key to sanity.”
Sounds about right! Using humor by dressing up in costume and having parties on Purim is one way Jews have coped with the truly absurd and random circumstances of history. It’s important to be able to laugh at ourselves and society, especially when we realize we aren’t always in control of our lives the way we’d like to be. Although drinking is one way Jews have sought to add to the jest of the holiday, please note the following:
If drinking is not your way of tapping into the kind of joy that can sit side by side with vulnerability, or if you do not drink for personal, health, or other reasons – try hosting a Purim seudah, a festive meal like the one Esther had. Invite friends, make or eat hamentashen, read the megillah (acting out all the parts of course), and discuss the meaning of the holiday in today’s time.
And, even more importantly, Jewish tradition emphasizes that we do not forget those in our midst whose economic situations prevent them from celebrating. We are indeed commanded to give gifts to the poor on this day and to prioritize this mitzvah over hosting a lavish meal or party. At the GatherDC Purim happy hour next week, we’ll be making gift bags full of necessary toiletry items for the clients at So Other Might Eat. You can also fulfill this mitzvah by donating to an organization like Yad Yehudah, which will provide food assistance to local needy Jewish families within the Greater Washington area on Purim itself.
I’d love to know what you end up doing for Purim, so please feel welcome to share your plans and any fun costume ideas you come up with with me!
Chag Purim Sameach, and have a happy, festive Purim!
About the author: Rabbi Ilana Zietman is GatherDC’s Community Rabbi. She loves meeting new people and creating real and meaningful connections with them. When Rabbi Ilana isn’t officially Gathering, she can be found cooking in her kitchen, practicing yoga, going on hikes, desperately searching for good pizza in DC (seriously, help her find some!) and watching a lot of tv.
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