The Purim holiday is coming up this month. It’s a kind of Jewish Mardi Gras, celebrated by children and adults with costumes, games, and storytelling.
Purim tells of an extraordinary moment for the Jewish community in ancient Persia, where one moment they are safe, then marked for annihilation, then redeemed to safety again. Purim is unique among the holidays in that it is simultaneously a serious drama and a farce. It begins when Haman the Persian counselor was insulted that Mordechai the Jew did not bow down to him, and furiously arranged to have the entire Jewish community destroyed. Meanwhile, back at the palace King Achashverosh needed a new consort, having dismissed Queen Vashti for her refusal to dance naked in front of the court.
They held a year-long beauty contest, so that maidens from all over the empire could enter. Mordechai entered his niece Esther, who kept her faith secret. After much back-and-forth action, Esther becomes queen, comes out as a Jew and saves her people. Haman is the one who is destroyed.
From here Purim diverges into two very different explanations. On the one hand we are told to celebrate the holiday so extravagantly that we can’t tell the difference between Good Mordechai and Evil Haman. We dress up in wild costumes, there’s a tradition to be free with the adult beverages, and retell the story as comically musical as we can manage. We’ve had Beatles Purim, Star Wars Purim, a West Side Story Purim — you get the picture. We take the story, mix in some current events, and have a wonderful time laughing at ourselves. As some have cheekily observed, they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.
Purim is further unique in that God is never mentioned at all — in the story. You could easily read this as a secular political tale of intrigue, as familiar now as it was back in the 5th century BCE when Persia (Iran) was a world empire. Despite God’s obvious absence, Purim is held in the highest regard by a long tradition; in fact, it is said that when the world is perfected at the Messiah’s arrival, the only holiday we will celebrate is Purim. This is due to God’s very absence from the story; even though God is not visibly present we understand that it is God’s hidden presence, behind the scenes as it were, that is still active and informing the courage and actions of Mordechai and Esther.
I understand God’s absence from the story as a way to understand that Purim is less about Divine Presence than it is about individual faith. Neither Mordechai or Esther received any messages from God, or from an angel, or even a talking donkey. Their faith came from their belief that their lives were worth saving, worth fighting for, and they were going to take the risks and put in the effort. Nor did they anticipate Divine intervention; there are no splitting of seas or armies swallowed up by an earthquake. Just a girl and her uncle, working together in their dedication to saving their people.
Throughout the centuries there has been a tradition for individual communities to write their own Purim story of when they succeeded in their own escape from disaster, as a way of remembering what they did to save themselves and as way for their children to learn that it takes focus, attention, determination, and discipline to protect what others seek to harm, all of which is wrapped up in the faith that they believe their lives have value and are worth saving. We believe it is essential that our children believe this, whatever else they believe. I hope you believe it as well.
And so I invite you to have your own Purim, a day that you mark as a disaster averted. Celebrate it wildly, tell the story from as many vantage points as you can, and then invent some more. Do it with music, song and dance, food and friends. Share your stories of success, survival, and endurance. Let everyone know how seriously you take your life, and have fun doing it! Hag Purim Sameach — Happy Purim!
Congregation Etz Chaim’s Purim celebration will take place online on Thursday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m.