We often think of Purim with its costumes, carnivals, groggers, and fairytale-like story (the heroes Mordechai and Esther are victorious over the wicked villain Haman) as a children’s holiday.
But the story, which is found in the scroll, or Megillah, of Esther is complex and quite adult in nature: a mixture of merriment and buffoonery, parody and satire. There is laughter but, as Arthur Waskow notes, the laughter of Purim “is not gentle laughter: it is a kind of angry, blood-red humor that celebrates the tyrant’s overthrow.” One might even wonder how this story, filled with violence and revenge, with G-d’s name not mentioned even once in the entire Book, made it into the Biblical canon.
But the themes and ideas of Purim are considered so important to Jewish life that our tradition tells us that we are to drop whatever we are doing to go and listen to the Megillah reading. What does the story of Purim and its celebration teach us, that is so important?
On its serious side, Purim is about Jewish survival and the need to blot out the memory of the evil attacks of Amalek – from whom Haman descends. It’s a reminder of our Jewish story and our enduring belief that the struggle against anti-Semitism can be won any time we face it. Purim also pokes fun at anti-feminism. Recall Vashti who refuses to be the “entertainment” for the King’s guests. The King looks for a new wife who will be dutiful and instead he gets Esther -one of the heroes of the story- who tactfully turns the events around so that Haman and not the Jews are impaled on the stake.
In another vein, Purim is about the importance of humor in our lives. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says, “Purim elevates laughter to a religious category. It is the one day when taking oneself seriously is a sin. At Purim, we make fun of everything, especially what we consider to be most sacred and reverent. Because religion without humor is blasphemy.”
Rabbi Dr. Tamara Ezkenazi (my Bible professor at HUC) suggests that the five megillot read during the year represent the seasons of our lives: The Song of Songs, read on Pesach in the early spring, is the time of our youth and the discovery of eros. The Book of Ruth, read on Shavuot in the late spring, is the time of building human community. Lamentations, read on Tisha b’Av in the summer, is a time of our losses. Ecclesiastes, read on Sukkot in the autumn, is a time to scan and reflect on the landscapes our lives. The Book of Esther, read on Purim in the winter, is the season of older age – a time of liberation and risk taking. It is the season of carnival. We’ve seen it all – we now have the need to hold on to the comic, the absurd.
In addition to hearing the Megillah read and having a Seudat Purim (a Purim celebration with a festive meal, drinking wine, putting on a Purim Shpiel and carnival), the four mitzvot associated with Purim also include Matanot l’Evyonim: giving money to the poor – a reminder that the purpose of being a Jew is to bring justice, freedom, and prosperity to all people; and Misloach Manot: giving gifts of at least two different kinds of food to neighbors and friends – a reminder that being a Jew means being part of a Jewish community.
Yes, Purim with its costumes and carnivals and rowdiness is fun for children (and adults, too). But, there are also deeper and more profound meanings to Purim as well.
Purim Sameach ~ Rabbi Teri