March 5, 2015

Of all the holidays of the Jewish calendar, Purim is among the most enigmatic, full of paradoxes and contradictions. The etymological roots of Purim come for the term pur (lot) as in the lots cast by the wicked Haman to determine the destruction of the Jewish people. This seems to be a peculiar naming choice: Why emphasize specifically the issue of casting lots? Surely, the important message of the day is that Haman wanted to destroy the Jewish people. So then, why is it important how he chose the day to fulfill his evil plan? The story of Esther and Mordechai’s political and military vanquishing of Haman is one of the Bible’s most lasting literary legacies. But this legacy is also one in which we struggle to recognize to the best of our abilities.

As Jews all over the world reacquaint themselves with the sage words of the Megillah, we should be aware of the three primary meta-values that the Purim story attempts to instill in our hearts and in our communities:

1.     To embrace the unity of the Jewish people and the collective ability to be joyous together

2.     To become aware of hester panim, the hidden miracles of our time

3.     To use our powers to prevent injustices against oppressed peoples

 Purim is one of the happiest of Jewish holidays. Yet, for all the values that are found in the Biblical passages, I’m afraid that the Jewish people have not yet succeeded in embracing the mission of the festivities. Broadly, introspection has been superseded by surface expressions of the holiday, namely costume extravagance, raucous and excessive drinking. Just as some materailistic aspects of Christmas have penetrated Chanukah so have those dimensions of Halloween come to dominate Purim. The underlying morals are often an afterthought.

Drunkenness rather than spirituality has been embraced on Purim: mindlessness not mindfulness. We are to immerse ourselves so deeply ad lo yada (until the point of no longer understanding what we used to know as we transcend that knowledge to a higher level). But many of us fail to see the profundity of this beautiful concept and use the ability to drink a little more than on other nights as an excuse to over-imbibe the spirits. Sadly instead of taking the time to read into the story and take away its mystic beauty –  nahafoch hu – the opposite has occurred.

Indeed, Purim has mostly remained parochial and the community at large has not embraced Jewish pluralism and thus the Jewish people are largely operating in a separated, competitive, and fear-based mentality. In a game of scarcity (people and funds), everything becomes a zero sum game. Like in the Megillah, we have become mefuzar um’forad – separated and scattered – rather than strong and unified. Attempts to bring divided communities together for collective learning and festivities are rarely even considered.

Preventing genocide and injustice has not been fully embraced as central to the ethos of the holiday. The goal of our survival is not merely to use all energy to ensure continued survival but to allocate energy to thriving by helping other peoples survive as well in our interdependent age.

Our Divine mandate to take human responsibility for our world is paradoxically loudest when we cannot hear the call. It is not that God is absent to global suffering in our time of hiddenness but that our Divine invitation to respond to injustice has increased due to that hiddenness. For this holiday to regain its force, we might start to measure our success at how the Jewish people, and each of us individually, have increased our impact due to our immersion in the day. Did Purim work in any way?

When Haman picked lots, he was perpetuating an ideology that life is all about randomness. In essence, that life is a cruel system of circumstances. But this is not the case!  I pray that one day this holiday will work again, that it will be brought back to its fullest potential. And yes, Purim is fun and great. But I don’t want us to disregard the substantive seriousness of Purim: that we don’t only live by chance, luck, and coincidence.   All life has meaning. All life has promise. I pray that these notions will be revived when we are ready to recognize Purim’s transformational potential and approach the deep and serious calls for awareness and action.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

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