March 4, 2009
Time to ReconsiderPurim’s Excesses
Purim used to be all about carnival: makeup, masquerade, cheering the heroes (with whom we identified ourselves), booing the villains (who were obligingly already dead) and overindulging (which we hardly ever permitted at any other time). It has in more recent years become more problematic.
The excesses we allow ourselves are no longer so carefully circumscribed: Our overeating and libational indulgences are usually unrelated to holiday cheer. We know more today about substance abuse than our ancestors did, and to let ourselves — or anyone else — willfully drink to a stupor is religiously intolerable.
We used to put on masks and costumes to play “what if”: What if we, the good guys, could be the “other” guys — kings, princesses, Norse gods, bimbos, priests, linebackers — exhibiting, briefly, our fantasies and whimsies about our bodies, our careers, even our religion. No harm was done, and any transgressions were slight and quickly shriven. Now, our Jewish identities are in a constant state of flux, and trying on new personae can be a powerful experience, having lasting, unforeseen consequences.
When, on Purim 1994, a Jewish fanatic murdered 29 Muslims at prayer in a place that is holy to both Judaism and Islam, it was a theological reengineering of our holiday, turning fantasy into politics and groggers into automatic weapons. Our innocence was lost forever. We can never again celebrate this holiday with any illusion that hatred of another people, even clothed in the sacred stories of Scripture, can be benign.
But just because Purim is more complicated than it was when we were kids does not make it less urgent. We are required to use more wits in our celebration so that our joy will be acceptable to God.
The Torah reading for Purim, which forms the theological basis for the Book of Esther, is Deuteronomy 25:19: “Wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens!” (Haman was a descendant of Amalek). The Haftarah for the Sabbath before Purim, taken from the Book of Samuel, describes the murderous retribution visited upon the Amalekite King Agag by the prophet Samuel. King Saul is deposed from his throne for the audacity of having shown mercy to Agag in apparent violation of this Divine genocidal decree. This incitement, taken literally and murderously in the earlier biblical text, was deracinated in the Book of Esther and subsequently by the rabbis. In the Book of Esther, the very same language that was used to depose the feckless King Saul is now used to describe a beauty pageant to replenish a later king’s harem. And the holiday of Purim became as dangerous as bonking your friends on the head with a plastic hammer or drowning out Haman’s name with noisemakers.
But the dark side of this battle cry remained lurking in the background and was brought back to life in 1994. If we masquerade too effectively at being oppressors, some will forget that it is a masquerade. There must be another way of understanding this commandment to eradicate the memory of a people.
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Epstein (1754-1823), in his Chasidic commentary, Maor vaShemesh, provides a delicious reinterpretation based on the number-letter correspondence called gematria. He teaches that the word Amalek is equal to 240, and the word for memory, zecher, is equal to 227. If we follow the text literally and “wipe away” the zecher from Amalek, that is, subtract 227 from 240, we are left with 13. And 13, the rebbe reminds us, is a very important number. The word for love, ahava is also equal to 13, as is the word echad, which means “one.” We are taught that the only extermination that is permitted is the eradication of the hatred in our spirit, leaving us in the presence of the One.
I know, I know. I can hear you sighing: Is all this necessary? This hermeneutic heavy lifting is not really fun. Can’t we just dress up like Haman and make a l’chayim the way we used to?
The answer is no — not until we have unlearned our tolerance for hatred. This does not mean we will not celebrate Purim as joyously as ever (we shall!). It only means we must dig deeper, understand more and serve God with ever greater joy.
Rabbi Dan Shevitz serves at Congregation Mishkon Tephilo, a Conservative synagogue in Venice, and teaches in the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.