Purim is considered a minor festival. You can drive on Purim, go to work, light a fire, take a trip, and so forth. But like Hanukkah, another minor festival, Purim is a favorite day for many a Jewish child, and for a few grown-ups, too. And why not?
On Purim, you get to come into the sanctuary and make noise with a noisemaker- indeed, it’s encouraged. In traditional shuls it is still de rigueur to drink in the sanctuary on Purim. The prime directive, from the Talmud, is as follows: “It is one’s duty 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). And the Purim story itself is frankly ribald and more than a bit bawdy, filled with intrigue and women and betrayals and murder. And if this were not sufficient to make Purim a favorite celebration, consider that it is the only day of the year Jews are allowed, in fact, encouraged! to dress up, including in drag.
I have no idea where this holiday came from – nobody does. It’s so different from every other holiday. It drips with excess and impiety. It lacks dignity. It mocks literally all that is holy. So what’s it all about?
Perhaps it’s about turning the world on its head, just for a day. Like the Amish rumspringa, when Amish adolescents leave home for a few years to get their ya-yas out before coming back home to marry, Purim is a day of abandoning law and order; not too far, but far enough. Just this small opportunity to let go and get kind of crazy seems to be welcomed, year after year.
As part of this celebration of excess, it is noteworthy that when the Purim story is read, God’s name does not appear – not once. Purim is not about God and the holy. Rather it is about a seamy world of lust, sloth, political intrigue and hatred. It is a story that forces Esther to put herself on the line to save the Jewish people, to test her loyalty to family over maintaining political advantage.
God does not reach in and save anyone. This is all about human ingenuity. On Purim, we are on our own.
Theologically speaking, the essence of the Purim story rings clearly to me. That is, amidst all the revelry and noisemaking and acting in a boisterous manner in one’s sanctuary, there is some sobering truth to Esther’s and Mordechai’s struggles. We wait for God to reach in at our own peril. This is our world and our stage. God offers us the teachings to guide us, but there is no direct line to the Holy One. It’s our own judgment upon which we must depend. That is, amidst the drinking and the noisemaking, someone needs to be the key master to keep an eye on things.
So in the end, Purim isn’t really about drinking and grogger spinning; that’s just camouflage. It isn’t about fleeing anyone or anything. It’s about taking a stand in a world where God is watching, but is not involved like a puppeteer. Maybe getting drunk was the only way our ancestors could truly acknowledge that God wasn’t pulling any strings.
Woody Allen’s tragic philosopher, Lewis Levy, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, says: “We’re all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale; most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love that gives meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying…”
This may the true text of Purim. It surely is the truth of our lives.