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Oil on canvas, 1685. RISD Museum of Art, Rhode Island.
It always amazes me how Judaism has succeeded in evolving (or shall we say, for the sake of political correctness, reinvigorating itself).
After all, the Bible took orgiastic pagan harvest festivals and turned them into disciplined, monotheistic family celebrations. Shapatu, the Mesopotamian Seventh Day, was transformed from an evil day of fear and bad luck into one of rest and spirituality. The people of Ugarit boiled a kid in its mother’s milk, while we wait six hours between meat and milk (or insist on two sets of dishes, fridges, ovens, dishcloths, tablecloths, dentures, and toothpicks). But I still can’t believe that Moses could ever have imagined his descendants would one day return to the Land Flowing with Milk and Honey to turn it into a land swamped with long black coats and fur hats speaking a variation of “Dog German”. But, as the good book of Psalms says, “How amazing are your works, God, and they are all wise!”
No sooner had Moses and Joshua been called to the Heavenly Assembly, when we Israelites returned to our natural bolshie, argumentative, and contrarian personification of a “stiff-necked people”. Despite the optimistic aspirations of Isaiah and the desperate Jeremiads of guess who, and with the exception of one or two decent monarchs, we descended into corruption, chaos, defeat, and exile. The horrific conquest and destruction described by the Book of Lamentations is obvious enough reason for the state of depression that enveloped us as we “sat by the waters of Babylon and there we wept”.
By the time we got to the prophet Zechariah, Judaism had instituted a range of depressing fasts, in the fourth month, the fifth, the seventh, and the tenth month (though we can’t be certain which ones they were, because the names of the months were constantly changing from Canaanite to Babylonian to Persian and more). Not only, but according to the Talmud we were fasting at the drop of a hat whenever something went wrong, the rains failed, the hurricanes blew, the lions roared, the jackals howled, or yet another invading army passed through.
The mood was dark. Our land was laid waste and we became a nation of expatriates. So think how amazing it is that after all those visions of valleys of dried bones, all of a sudden our religion bequeaths us a celebration to surpass all celebrations, a carnival of food drink and fancy dress. Again I ask, could Moses have ever envisioned a celebration that started in the warmth of Persian indulgence transported into the driving sleet of Manchester, the cold rain of London, or the snow ravaged suburbs of New England? No wonder getting drunk seemed to be the only way to get through the day.
Yet the wisdom of our forefathers was not simply in giving us an opportunity to have fun and let our hair down (if you were a male and forgot to shave your head to the scalp). Even in the moments of our inebriated self-indulgence we were commanded to think of the poor, to cement friendships, and give presents. It is an amazing tribute to our forefathers that they knew how to find that golden rule, that balance between self-indulgence and altruism, between individuality and community, between enjoying God’s gifts and making sure we shared them with others.
That, after all, was our very first celebration as a nation. The Paschal Lamb was eaten together with the stranger or the loner and was welcomed into the warmth of the home. So from the start the family, eating and rejoicing, became the center point of our religious life.
Nowadays in modern and free materialist living, the idea of family comes under assault everywhere and in every form. Families no longer sit down to eat together, or if they do it is in front of the television. Mothers walk their babies as they talk into their cellphones or sit on park benches texting, and never even look at their offspring, let alone communicate with them. The conflicting and concurrent demands of modern life pull one parent to work, the other to the store, one child to sport, the other to a mall; even when they do come back, they each retire to their pads, phones, boxes, and screens to enter their own private worlds. How wise of our founders to focus on sitting down together to have a religious meal, to drink and be merry, to talk about lofty ideas, and encourage children to present some stimulating or original thought. We have always been adding, adapting and adjusting as circumstances and history have changed.
There’s one point about Purim that I don’t think is stressed enough. The Jews of the Persian Empire were very careful to avoid offending and above all not to be seen benefiting from the discomfort of their enemies. They did not loot or take advantage (though Esther did get Haman’s palace). I wish nowadays more of us took that to heart. Swindling the State has almost become a national pastime in some quarters.
Purim reminds us of the dangers of life but also the pleasures. One can so quickly turn into the other. We are commanded to be so spaced out on Purim that we cannot tell the difference between “Blessed is Haman” and “Cursed is Mordechai”. If I may suggest some relevant adaptations; between an outwardly religious Jew who behaves like a pagan and a pagan who behaves more morally than a Jew, and between a Jew who says he is a Jew and one who really behaves like one!
We have survived despite the continuing presence of Amalek in various disguises. And we have survived despite the fact that we are often our own worst enemies. So let’s drink to survival. Happy Purim.
Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun – Purim Wisdom Explaining the deeper meaning of this holiday!