March 14, 2011
Turning the world upside-down on Purim
When was the last time you stood on your head?
If you don’t practice yoga, and you’re not a 2-year-old, it’s probably been quite a while.
Noting that my toddler couldn’t get enough of being upside down on his little sister’s infant seat, I understood the allure. Seeing the world in a completely unexpected way is titillating. Subverting the natural order of things is energizing.
When your world is turned upside down, it’s time to reconsider your place in it.
Being upside down is nothing new for Jews on Purim. It’s a holiday known for the expression “nahafochu,” which is Hebrew for “to be turned on its head.”
Purim, which this year starts on March 19, is a subversive story about how Jews reversed the destructive decree against them by the wicked prime minister, Haman. The intended victims became the victors, and their oppressors, Haman and his family, were punished with a death sentence.
We read about nahafochu in the central passage of the Megillah, or Scroll of Esther, which describes how the holiday should be celebrated. It reads, “… [The Jews] should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day … year by year, as the days on which the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month which was turned (nahafokh) for them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning to holiday: that they should make the days of feasting and joy, and of sending choice portions to one another and gifts to the poor.” (Esther 9:21-23)
“Feasting and joy” is celebrated by Purim parties and meals, or seudot, and by drinking alcohol until you don’t know the difference between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman.” Through this obligatory merrymaking, Purim creates an escape valve, especially for religious Jews who spend much of the year in study and prayer. On Purim we can let loose, drink, be joyous and even mock our most venerable institutions and scholars.
But there are two other ways of celebrating Purim: mishloach manot, sending gift packages to friends, and matanot l’evyonim, or gifts to the poor.
What’s so subversive about that? What could it mean for us to apply the lens nahafochu to these two activities as well?
When we take the lesson of Purim to heart, living in a world turned upside down can mean taking on roles as foreign to us as if we were garbed in masks and costumes, acting in a way that on any other day would seem absurd.
Let’s start with mishloach manot. One explanation of this mitzvah is that we are meant to celebrate the victory of the Purim story with our entire community. It’s a way of proving Haman wrong when he claimed that the Jews were a “divided and scattered people.” And because we can’t literally invite everyone over for the meal, we share some part of it with others—traditionally the gift package should contain at least two kinds of food.
Consider applying nahafochu to this mitzvah. Don’t just give to the friends you see all the time. Think about a friend who used to be part of your community but no longer is, or someone from whom you have distanced yourself over the past year. Send them your mishloach manot this Purim as an invitation to repair a distant or broken relationship.
And what about matanot l’evyonim? To ensure that both rich and poor could partake in a festive meal on Purim, Jews were obligated to provide a meal for a minimum of two poor people. Nowadays, many people write checks to charities that work for food relief. But with nahafochu in mind, consider sharing that meal with them.
For those who live in cities and pass by poor people every day, instead of simply giving them a handout, consider buying them a meal. In the time that you are standing in line getting the meal, use that time to ask them about themselves. Relate to them as a human being. If you live in the suburbs or a small town, consider volunteering at a soup kitchen around the time of Purim.
This Purim, turn your world upside down. Maybe the experience will linger beyond the day itself and alter your perspective for days and weeks to come.
(Dasee Berkowitz is a Jewish life-cycle consultant in New York.)