A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Thoughts on Purim


Some brief observations about Purim. Pardon me if I ramble a bit – I’m observing the Fast of Esther (the what? See below) and so I’m a bit tummy-tied.

Purim is a powerful and mysterious holy day but one that is widely misunderstood and mis-observed. We tend to think of it as a day (or night) when children dress up like animals, queens or kings, or pastries, and adults stand around and watch their kids delight in what John McCain yesterday referred to as the Jewish “version of Halloween.” If adults think it bears on them at all, they think it is the night on which God, quoting AC/DC, commanded the Jewish people to “have a drink on me” and to get w-a-s-t-e-d.

In fact, Purim, like every other Jewish holy day, holds a mirror up to the theological and ethical situation within which we find ourselves.

Chaos and Peril in the Story of Purim

The recitation of Megillat Esther, the book of Esther, is at the center of observance of the day. A quick read of this book is pretty sobering. It is about the attempt of a powerful person (Haman the King’s assistant) to exterminate the Jewish people who lived within a particular kingdom. He would try to do this by commanding non-Jews to rise up and “destroy, massacre, and exterminate” (Esther 3:13, JPS translation) the Jews within all the provinces.

Haman, the bloodthirsty man who seeks the elimination of the Jews, decided upon the date for this murderous uprising by casting lots, pur, which in the plural is purim. At the center of the story, then, is a stark reminder that chance governs our fate – or at least the sense that we have that this is so. The story suggests that chaos is the governor of the world, and the Jews are at its mercy. We each experience, in dark moments, this sense of chaos – that we live in a world ruled by chance, and all we can do is carve out some kind of security and meager happiness for ourselves at the card table of life before we are dealt a joker.

Underlying this moral chaos is the chilling absence of God from the story. Only the Song of Songs shares this distinction of having no mention of God in the text (although the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs is most often seen as a metaphor for human-divine intimacy). This silence hangs heavily over the narrative as the horror unfolds, reminding us, perhaps, of the apparent absence of God from our own lives, or from the history of the 20th century (several people have mentioned that Esther’s name can be linked to the Hebrew root meaning ‘to conceal or hide’ and that God is hidden from those who most need salvation).

The Fast of Esther – observed today, as I’m writing, the day before Purim begins – is a reminder of the sobriety (!) of this festival. Because fasting can be understood as an attempt to move God to action, but also as a reminder of our own need for moral purification, this fast builds a bridge between the frightening theological implications of Purim and its ethical requirements.

Purim and Moral Responsibility

The story also reminds us of the many mass-exterminations of Jews throughout history and of course in the shadow of the Holocaust the story has a particularly grim resonance. To countless generations of Jews, Haman has represented every Jew-hating bloodthirsty individual and government that has sought our destruction. Haman’s comeuppance and the eventual uprising of Jews against their persecutors served as a useful revenge fantasy for a millennium.

Reading it today, though, the story calls to mind the insane hatred that leads to what we now call ‘ethnic cleansing.’ Jews can not allow the Purim story to be one of Jewish persecution alone. Not with genocide in Darfur – and not when we can do something about it.

Because this story is also about the responsibility that comes with power. Queen Esther – who has been chosen by the King to replace his disobedient wife – is a Jew in secret. No one, not even the King, knows that this woman is a product of this despised people chosen for extermination. When Esther learns of the decree against the Jews, though, she refuses to help. That is, she absolves herself of the responsibility that comes with her proximity to power. The author of the story makes clear that King Achashverosh is at the mercy of his advisors. This man is not a calculating, or clever, agent of change. We are led to believe that Esther could certainly change his mind if she so chose. Her initial refusal to act is a moral crime against her own people. Mordechai (who raised Esther but is not her father) sends her a note harshly reminding her of her obligation and reminding her that her own fate is bound up with that of the Jewish people.

What might this part of the story mean for us, Jews living in the most powerful nation in the world, with more political agency than any generation before us? Can’t we see in Esther’s refusal to act, and in Mordechai’s reprimand, the story of our own political passivity – and laziness – set against our shamed awareness that we ought to do something? Mordechai’s reprimand is addressed to us. Traditionally, we are commanded to make gifts for those in need on Purim – a reminder that we are not merely celebrating on this day but that we are responsible for the suffering of others. We should do this – but we can do much more. You can act by calling Becky O’Brien at Congregation Har HaShem, 303.499.7077, and asking how to help; or you can go here: www.savedarfur.org.

Celebrating Purim

This all sounds pretty heavy, and pretty far from a good time. Against this crazy backdrop, though, we are indeed commanded to celebrate. In fact, the entire month of Adar (during which Purim falls, thanks to the lots cast by Haman in deciding when to kill us) is supposed to be a time of celebration (neat fact: my son’s Hebrew initials spell ADAR). We are commanded to celebrate with much food and enough drink that we can no longer distinguish between “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed is Haman.” We erase distinctions on this day in which Jewish lives and the moral universe was thrown into chaos. Thus the costumes that conceal our identity and drinking until moral categories vanish. (McCain’s equation of Halloween to Purim was actually right on. Apparently Samhain, the Pagan festival that was likely the original Halloween, was seen as a day on which the boundaries that normally structured our lives – principally the boundary between the living and the dead – were eliminated. It was thus a time of great danger and fear, which we now commemorate by eating candy and dressing like Britney Spears).

The reduction of Purim by so many Jews to hamentaschen eating, vodka drinking, and costume wearing is ironic. The story of Purim is framed in the Book of Esther by celebration – it opens with a huge banquet and eating and drinking and closes with merriment – so that the morally troubling elements of the story are cast against raucous partying. The moral dangers highlighted in the book – the danger of bloodthirsty and powerful people out to kill, a murderous public, inattentive leaders, people who refuse to accept moral responsibility and, yes, the frightening revenge (of the Jews upon their persecutors) that screams out at the end of the story – take place against this background of frivolity. In the story, this creates narrative irony and perhaps a message about the bind within which we find ourselves: tragedy and mindless playfulness are partners in human experience all the time. But the deeper irony is that we have chosen to commemorate Purim by this celebration alone while ignoring the deeper meaning of the day. Mordechai would be bummed.

Having said all this, you would not be doing your duty as a Jew if you did not eat and drink and act crazy tonight. But we have to wake up in the morning, a letter from Mordechai in our hands.

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