CHAG PURIM SAMEACH
Say what? It really just means Happy Purim. Yes, it’s that simple. Sometimes when Hebrew sounds complicated, it isn’t; it feels complicated because it’s a language with which you have no familiarity. But what about this odd holiday that tells you to get so drunk you can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai? Who are Haman and Mordecai? And why would our tradition advocate hating anyone to the point of cheering as they were hanged?
To understand the background it’s helpful to go back to the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and read the book of Esther. In the Hebrew Bible, Esther is called a Megillah, or scroll. It’s found among the books of Writings, between Ecclesiastes and Daniel. In the Protestant Bible Esther is located between Nehemiah and Job, and in the Catholic Bible it is between Judith and 1 Maccabees. Sound confusing? That’s because the Tanakh has a different order to the arrangement of the books that are in the Bible than the Protestant and Catholic editions, and the Catholic edition has some materials that are not in the Protestant edition of the Hebrew Bible, or more commonly known as the “Old Testament.”
A SHORT HISTORY LESSON
The story of Esther is first and foremost a story of redemption of the Jewish people over an anti-Semitic Prime Minister named Haman during the Persian rule of King Ahashuerus. Haman’s plan is quite simply to exterminate all of the Jews in the kingdom. It is foiled by Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai. The manner in which Esther, a young Jewish woman, becomes Queen is a subplot that doesn’t sit well with modern sensibilities for many people.
At any rate, for some unknown reason, Haman decides he doesn’t like Jews and wants to rid Persia of them. He tricks the King into signing a decree allowing him to exterminate all the Jews in the kingdom. Esther learns of the plot and, at great risk to her life, approaches the King to plead for the lives of her people. While the King can’t rescind his decree, he can authorize the Jews to arm and defend themselves. What follows is a battle with the Jews of Shushan—the capital of Persia—being victorious and the death of Haman and his sons on the gallows.
Following the victory, Queen Esther declares that every year on the 13th of Adar there will be a festival to commemorate the day when good prevailed over evil. And so the festival of Purim, which means ‘lots’ was instituted and continues to this day in a variety of forms.
With Esther and Mordecai as heroes, Haman as the villain and Ahashuerus as an unlikely benevolent ruler, Purim has become a cross between Mardi Gras and Halloween. Purim is celebrated by the reading of Megillah Esther, or Scroll of Esther as noted above. Generally this is done in the synagogue, but can actually take place anywhere. The reading of the megillah is usually a noisy, raucous affair. If there are children present they will be given noisemakers called ‘groggers’ and instructed to use them every time the name ‘Haman’ is pronounced. The idea is to make enough noise to obliterate his name from history.
The reading of the megillah is often followed by a carnival, a festive meal or a lively party. The type of event depends entirely upon the age of the participants. Frequently the reading of the megillah is a two-part event—the first part is the actual reading of the story and the service for the festivals and the second part is the acting out of the story. It is the second part that brings forth the creativity for many schools, congregations and organizations. A few selections I have seen this year include Hamilton, Dr. Seuss, and Star Wars themed Megillah readings. Around the country there will be so many fun, engaging celebrations in which to participate.
WHAT ABOUT THE DRINKING?
It is true that in the Talmud Rav said the following: “It is one’s duty levasumei, to make oneself fragrant [with wine] on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between ‘arur Haman‘ (cursed be Haman) and ‘barukh Mordekhai’ (blessed be Mordecai)” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7b). It is also true that we know a lot more about the effects of alcohol on our bodies and the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol. As with everything else in life, Judaism teaches us to be responsible. This isn’t an excuse to drink oneself into a stupor and endanger yourself or anyone else; be smart and sensible. Enjoy yourself and the holiday, don’t be foolish.
HAMENTASCHEN & MISHLOACH MANOT
During Purim it is customary to eat hamentaschen and to give gifts of friends and family members. Hamentaschen are pastries formed in triangles and filled with a variety of sweet or fragrant concoctions. Traditionally they are filled with prune and poppy seed mixtures, but increasingly people are becoming much more creative. There are literally dozens of variations on line—just type in “hamentaschen” on any search engine and you will find a plethora of websites from which to choose. Or, ask any friend or family member who participates in a Jewish organization of any kind. They will have their favorite for you to try!
Mishloach manot are gift baskets that people make up for one another filled with, among other items, hamentaschen. In many communities these have risen to an art form and it has become fashionable for one person to outdo the next. My opinion is less is more—a few home baked or thoughtfully chosen items for each person are much more meaningful than a huge, expensive basket of goodies that might go to waste. If you have children, involve them in the process. Other traditions are to take baskets to homebound members of your community—again take your children when you deliver them, or send cards to members of the military.
Ultimately, Purim is about Jewish survival against all odds. It is a story we can relate to many times; it is retold during Chanukah, Passover and countless other times in the course of our history as a people. The beauty of Purim is that we are reminded that God speaks in and through unlikely places and people. The name of God is never mentioned in the book of Esther, but God’s presence is clearly there. We don’t always have to see or hear the name of God to know that God is at work in a people or place. It reminds me of Jacob when he became Israel: “God was in this place and I did not know it,” Genesis 28:16.