Why We Need Purim
Judaism does not have a lot to say with certainty about what the messianic world to come will be like, but there is one thing we know – in a perfect world we will no longer need the holidays, except for one, Purim! Why Purim? Let’s start with why we won’t need the other holidays. In a world of peace, human behavior will be transformed for the good, so no more Yom Kippur with its emphasis on repentance. We will be living with a constant awareness of the Divine, so no more Rosh Hashanah with its theme of Divine Kingship. There will no longer be war or oppression, so no more historical holidays reminding us of loss, slavery and redemption. Even the Sabbath will be unnecessary. The very definition of Shabbat rest is that Shabbat gives us a foretaste of what every day will be like in the world to come – rest, being with friends, food prepared, with time for song and study, walks and sleep.
But Purim will still be needed. The rabbis imagined that we will still need an “upside down day,” a day when we make fun of things that normally we hold in respect. A day when children run around in the Sanctuary in costumes, when adults drink a lichayyim during services, a day when the rabbi takes off his suit and puts on a Winnie the Pooh costume. By permitting all kinds of unusual behavior one day a year, we reaffirm our normal routines and make them a little less stuffy. Purim reminds us that everyone should be able to take a joke, that a pauper can be prince.
On a more somber note, Purim gives us time to reread and reflect on the Book of Esther. Esther is the one book of the Bible that takes place outside of the Land of Israel and that tells those of us who live in the lands of our dispersion (including the United States) how to get by. We learn in this book how to navigate living as a minority in a majority culture that might, at any moment, turn from hospitality to persecution. The Jews of Persia have a long history and the Book of Esther tells of a time, long ago, when a silly King, prone to excess in his drinking, in his harem and in the richness of his golden court, fell under the influence of an anti-Semitic advisor. Haman tells the King that the Jews are a foreign body in the nation, with different ways. He paints the Jews as a threat, they aren’t like us and there are too many of them. But before his plan to exterminate the Jews can be put into effect, one Jew, Mordechai, planfully makes sure that the Jews have influence at court. He reveals a plot against the King and earns the King’s gratitude. He also places his niece, Esther, in the court as the King’s newest wife and Queen.
From Mordechai we learn an important lesson that Jewish communities have followed for thousands of years, even in America: Make sure there are Jews of influence in the halls of power. Be vigilant and alert when those who hate the Jews exercise power and influence and be prepared to counter them. Kings and other rulers can be swayed and often fall prey to those who would flatter them and scare them about outsiders.
So the holiday of Purim has two lessons for us today. On the one hand, we need a day that shakes things up in the synagogue. Our children need to see grown-ups dress up and act silly. The memory of seeing us in costume stays with the kids all year long and makes us less intimidating. So come to services on March 20th and come in costume (or at least a silly hat). And for us in America it is also a reminder that our security can be tenuous, that leaders can turn things around quickly, and that we need to stay alert and active in politics to make sure that our community is safe both here and in Israel.
We are told that when the month of Adar begins we should find reasons to celebrate. May we all have a joyous Adar and a fanciful and fun Purim. Hag Purim Sameach!
Rabbi Leonard Gordon