March 1, 2007
Unmasking Purim’s vital meaning
It's a classic Jewish tale: Just when we feel comfortable and safe, nahafokh hu -- the whole world can turn upside down.
Megillat Esther, read on Purim, reminds us that history is capricious and life is fragile; that willing or not, we must confront our powerlessness and vulnerability, our inability to control everything. Or anything. We're given some tools to assist in that brutal awakening -- masks and flasks -- which help us laugh at ourselves as we venture into the dangerous territory of rabbi-sanctioned drunken revelry, of the outrageous, irresponsible behavior most of us work hard to guard against the rest of the year.
On Purim we are instructed (Megillah 7a) to drink ad d'lo yada, until we can no longer distinguish between Haman and Mordecai, evil and good, blessing and curse -- an excuse to be utterly confused, an annual corrective to our desperate attempts to exert control over our lives.
But is this really a laudable religious goal? The practice of Purim seems counterintuitive, counterproductive and even dangerous. Why put ourselves through it?
The Talmud tells the story of Rabbah, who, in a drunken frenzy on Purim, accidentally murders R. Zeira, then miraculously resuscitates him after sobering up. A year later, Rabbah again invites R. Zeira to celebrate Purim with him, but R. Zeira blithely refuses this time, saying that miracles are not to be taken for granted (Megillah 7b).
This story is an expression of rabbinic ambivalence to ad d'lo yada -- underscoring the deeply problematic nature of Purim for people of conscience and sensibility. Most of us spend our year working assiduously to make order out of a chaotic world -- trying to repair broken relationships, to make space for holiness in our work and in our homes; trying to respond to grief with comfort, to cruelty with goodness. Most of us work hard to try to remember -- amidst the chaos -- that every deed, every moment has the potential to pierce the darkness with some light.
Then Purim arrives each year, mandating that we contemplate a world without God (there is no mention of God throughout the entire megillah), that we entertain our darkest fears about the direction of history (there is no such thing as real security -- our individual and collective destinies could change in an instant).
On Purim we are forced to confront the possibility that nothing we do really matters, because history is ultimately arbitrary, and life is therefore unalterably unpredictable. No wonder they tell us to have a couple of drinks ... But the power of Purim is not that it leaves us in a drunken stupor, vulnerable, uncertain and hungover.
The real power of Purim is that we move beyond the costumed debauchery -- the ultimate response to nothingness -- and respond to chaos with an affirmation of somethingness: namely the human capacity for goodness. One of the central obligations of Purim is not only to give mishloah manot -- gifts to our loved ones, but also to give matanot l'evyonim -- gifts to the poor. Remarkably, though the obligation is to give two gifts to two people in need, we are taught that even more is expected of us. "One is not exceedingly precautious with money on Purim. Rather, everyone who puts out a hand [in need], we are to give to that person" (Shulkhan Arukh, OH 694:3).
Purim demands that, for one day of the year, we are released from the shackles of cautious discernment and, instead, we give to anyone and everyone who lacks. We give, regardless of what we think or fear the person might do with the money, and regardless of our political perspectives on how best to fight poverty, homelessness and hunger. We give indiscriminately and generously, just because somebody needs.
Why the obligatory openheartedness? Because ultimately the message of Purim is that we can't control history, but we must control how we treat humanity. Out of the depths of darkness, out of utter nonsense, we have the capacity to dream of a different kind of reality, one in which no person suffers the indignity of poverty, no parent puts her kids to bed hungry, and human beings work devotedly, even indiscriminately, to realize a world of dignity, justice and love.
At IKAR we try to communicate the complexity of this holiday through our Purim Justice Carnival. We embrace the confusion and moral ambiguity of Purim simultaneously with drunken revelry and a renewed commitment to social change.
We play blackjack with cards bearing hunger stats; we spin prize wheels for sweat-free souvenirs; we eat, drink and dance until it hurts. And at the end of the night, each of us ends up with a chunk of money that we give to organizations that are working to address critical local and global social justice issues.
But hunger, AIDS, economic justice on Purim? How do we reconcile those struggles with the obligation to have real simcha, joy of the holiday? The rabbis tell us exactly what it means to really experience the joy of the holiday.
"There is no greater or more wonderful joy," says the Mishnah Berurah, "than to make happy the heart of a poor person, an orphan or a widow. And in this way, we are imitating God."
Our commitment to help those most vulnerable fuels our celebration. Our Purim Justice Carnival is an attempt to integrate the religious and the political, the spiritual and the social -- and for that reason it's our best party of the year.
The rabbis teach that even when all the other festivals are abolished in the World to Come, Purim will remain (Midrash Mishle 9:2). Why is that? Because Purim is one holiday that teaches that no matter what life deals to us, we have the power to respond with love, hope, joy and purpose. We embrace chaos and meaninglessness for one day each year, precisely to affirm that that is not the world we want to live in. Then we spend the rest of the year making sure that it does not become our reality.
May we all be blessed this year with the capacity to internalize the message of Purim -- to refuse to accept the inevitability of the flow of history, to give with all our hearts, to love with all our beings, and to work with all our strength to bring light, hope and healing into our world.
Sharon Brous is rabbi of IKAR, a spiritual community.