Bernie at Purim 2009
Mardis Gras. Halloween. Carnevale de Venezia. Masquerade.
It seems everyone loves a chance to dress in costumes.
Purim is such a fascinating and unique moment in the cycle of the Jewish year: It's our "let loose" moment . . . costumes, songs, raucous audience-participation during the reading of the Megillah (the Scroll of Esther), even some condoned adult tippling.
When we read the Purim story in the Scroll of Esther, however, some engaging, substantive themes emerge:
It is in this book of the Hebrew Bible that we encounter a new model of women's leadership. Vashti, King Ahashuerus's rebellious queen is banished from the throne for her non-compliance.
"Back in the day" active Megillah-listeners would hiss at the sound of Vashti's name. Today, women are more likely to cheer for the female sovereign who risked her crown to preserve her dignity.
Over the course of the Scroll, we witness Esther's transformation from a shy, self-deprecating beauty to a royal-court-savvy, assertive champion of our people, more successfully risking her crown for principle than her predecessor.
Jewish Identity in the Diaspora
Purim shares a significant distinction with the festival of Shavuot . . . neither festival takes place within the Land of Israel. What does it mean that we received the Torah (celebrated at Shavuot) and defended the security of our community (at Purim) outside the borders of the Land of Israel? This may be a question that we here in the United States may see differently than our peers living in Israel.
Too Much Bloodshed?
Whether hyperbole, fantasy or historical fact, the ninth chapter of the book of Esther relates the mechanism by which the Jews of Shushan and the Persian Empire survived. The King's order to slay the Jews (provoked by Haman) could not be revoked. There existed no mechanism for revoking a royal decree. So, the best King Ahashuerus could do was to order a second decree permitting the Jews to defend themselves. Which they did. Effectively. Enthusiastically. Throughout Shushan and its 127 provinces, over 75,000 enemies were killed by the Jews . . . who did not touch the spoils of war.
I had the opportunity to live in England for a year. A friend involved in the administration of Great Britain's equivalent of our Reform Movement explained that their tradition was to hold a board meeting the night of Purim in order to demonstrate to their non-Jewish neighbors and friends that this Jewish community would not gather to celebrate the deaths of their non-Jewish enemies.
Clearly the juvenile and family-friendly versions of the Megillah skip this chapter, but here, among adults, we are left to ponder: is the story of Purim meant to convey to our diaspora neighbors that God will protect us one way or another no matter where we live? Has the story of Purim generated hostility directed at diaspora Jewish communities over the centuries? Should we read Chapter 9 and take pride in the fact that our ancestors stood up for themselves instead of allowing themselves to be slaughtered? Do we cringe a little and wish the text of the book of Esther expressed some regret for the bloodshed?
The Priority of Community
The annual celebration of Esther and Mordechai's triumph over Haman is described in the final verses of the book of Esther. Purim is to be an occasion for feasting and merrymaking . . . for sending gifts of food to one another and sending donations to support the poor. The feasting and merrymaking are not unexpected expressions of joy, relief, celebration. I find the last two elements . . . Mishloach Manot, Sending Portions of Food to neighbors and friends and Matanot l'Evyonim, Sending Gifts to the Needy to add a quality of significance to our celebration. As we indulge in, perhaps, a little too much rich food and a little too much to drink, we are also equally expected to share our bounty with family and friends and make sure that the vulnerable among us also have cause and the means to celebrate.
Purim is most definitely fun . . . and we here at Torat Yisrael are hoping the snow won't get in the way of our celebration this year. And, between the snowflakes, we can also pause to consider some of Purim's "meatier" themes.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.