I remember the Purim that fell during the year that I was mourning the loss of my father. Early on, I mentioned to my wife that I just wasn’t going to be in the mood to go to the Purim Seuda being held at shul, and she lovingly and generously offered to make a low-key Seudah at home with just family and maybe some close friends. But I turned this offer down as well, and wound up eating the Seuda by myself, in the kitchen. Which for me at least, felt about right.
Halachikly - and more than just halachikly - Purim isn’t Yom Tov. The arrival of Purim does not terminate a shiva or a shloshim that is in progress, the way that the arrival of a Yom Tov does. And the Halacha concerning the mourner and the Purim Seuda is actually rather unworked out, with opinions ranging the gamut. This is very different from Yom Tov meals, which even a mourner is to enjoy in the company of family and friends. There’s clearly a fundamental difference between the nature of the joy of Yom Tov, and the nature of the joy of Purim.
This difference is expressed in another way as well. Purim features this very unusual encouragement toward drunkenness, raucous noisemaking, and the wearing of masks and costumes, none of which are associated with the joy of Yom Tov. Which leaves us asking, “What exactly IS Purim? And what exactly are we doing when we celebrate it? “
I remember once hearing a theory, quoted in the name of Rabbi Soloveitchik, which explained the distinction between the joy of Yom Tov and the joy Purim. The joy of Yom Tov - ideally at least – is organic, naturally occurring. On the anniversary of our redemption from slavery, or on the anniversary of the Revelation, or as we sit beneath the schach, and celebrate the plenty with which we’ve been blessed, the joy wells up within us, organically, almost irrepressibly. “And you shall rejoice on your festivals” is as much a description of what will be, as it is a command. And when this organic state of joy collides for someone with his or her personal state of mourning, the Halacha presumes that one of them must step aside for the other. And by halachik tradition, it is the mourning that yields, and the joy that is given expression. This is also the reason that there’s no need to artificially manufacture joy on Yom Tov through wearing outlandish costumes or imbibing intoxicating amounts of drink. The joy is there; it’s in the glow on everyone’s faces as they recite Kiddush at the Seder, or sit down at the table that first night in the Sukkah
But the nature of Purim, the joy of Purim, is entirely different. This was first expressed in the Talmud, which notes that we don’t recite Hallel on Purim. Why was Purim not a day of Hallel? Because on the day after the great victory over our foes, we woke up to find ourselves still in Shushan, still ruled the “great fool”, as the Sages delicately refer to Achashverosh. We knew that the next Haman could already be waiting in the wings. We had dodged a bullet this time, but there was no guarantee that there wasn’t going to be a next time.
As my friend Joelle Keene put in a 1997 column in the short-lived but much-beloved Jewish Voice of Greater Los Angeles,
“On Purim we are giddy the way people are giddy after narrowly escaping a car crash, or following a biopsy that came back normal. Contained in that kind of relief is the freshly irrefutable evidence that we’re terribly, terribly vulnerable. In Shushan, a whole community came within a hair’s breadth of annihilation. Next time we may not be so lucky, and in other places and times, we haven’t been.”
Purim does not generate organic, naturally-occurring joy. As such, there is no head-on emotional collision between Purim and mourning, There is no need for mourning to give way. The two will co-exist, awkwardly perhaps, but without pushing one another off the table. And this is why Purim is characterized by noisemaking, costume-wearing and even drinking. We need to consciously manufacture the joy, to work ourselves up into a state of celebration, to employ external stimulants to bring us into the Yom Tov proclaimed by Esther and Mordechai - the Yom Tov beneath whose surface vulnerability stubbornly lurks.
But if this is so, what is the point of celebrating Purim at all? Why push ourselves to feel a state of joy? The answer, I think, is that Purim is a metaphor for life. And life must be celebrated.
I won’t ever forget what seemed at the time to be an unremarkable visit to 7/11 a little over a decade ago. Our older boys (12 and 8 at the time) were negotiating loudly and insistently with my wife over what size Slurpees that were entitled to, all while she holding our infant, who was crying. I was standing at the cash register looking exasperated, doing all I could to contain myself as I said, “two medium Slurpees, please”. The man at the cash register looked up at me and without even a hint of sarcasm said, “You are a very lucky man”. Six words out of the mouth of a stranger. The best “mussar shmooes” I have received in my life.
Purim’s gift was not liberation from slavery, or the hearing of God’s voice from atop the mountain. Purim’s gift was not the recapturing of the Temple from the hands of Antiouchus and the Syrian-Greeks. Purim’s gift was simply giving people a new lease on their ordinary, everyday lives. The upshot of the Purim story was that the Jews of Persia were given the renewed opportunity to go to work and to derive the satisfaction that their work brought to them, to experience the warmth of friendship, and the intimacy of family. They were given the gift of more days of ordinary, everyday life. It’s true that when our alarm clock rings at 6:30 AM at the beginning of another ordinary day, we aren’t usually possessed of irrepressible, Yom Tov-like joy. But on the 14th of Adar many years ago we realized that we would do well to find a way to celebrate the blessing of ordinary days. And we understood that if we are unable to arouse ourselves to celebrate ordinary living, than we are probably not really living at all.
This is the reason that we work so hard to rejoice on Purim. This is what we are doing when we celebrate the day. And yes, the ways we celebrate Purim are over the top, an extreme effort at generating joy. But that’s because we need for Purim to echo through a whole year of ordinary, regular days, till Purim comes round to remind us again.