Among the full calendar of Jewish holidays, our Festival of Purim (March 11 & 12, this year) often gets short shrift. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukah and Pesach seem to be foremost in our consciousness. The High Holidays, for their pageantry; Chanukah and Pesach, because they are primarily celebrated in the home, together with family and close friends. Purim, though, assuredly one of the most joyous moments on the Jewish calendar, can be overlooked. The customs of Purim are exuberant and fun. They include hearing the Megillah read while wearing costumes; sending and receiving Mishloach Manot baskets of food and drink (DIY or through JCCH); and having a Purim Seudah/ cel-ebration (our annual carnival is March 12th after the morning Megillah reading). All, good and wholesome ways to celebrate.
As a reminder: What, exactly, are we celebrating on Purim? We are reminded in the Biblical Book of Esther, the Megillah, of a perennial problem for Jews – being different from their neighbors. In the Megillah, we learn that Mordechai, a Jewish man, refused to bow down to Haman. Haman is so offended that he plots to destroy all of the Jews of the Per-sian Empire. King Achashverosh is tricked into helping. Thanks, in par-ticular, to Mordechai’s niece Esther, the Jews come out unharmed and we celebrate that anniversary of our being saved each year on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar, the anniversary of this victory. Jews have celebrated Purim each year, up until today, by remembering that all challenges to the Jewish people can be overcome – with courage, dignity and strength.
All well and good. But, is Purim even necessary, given that our next major holiday, Pesach, falls just one month later? After all, both holidays share essentially the same message of victory over a hostile nation (Or, said another way, “They tried to kill us. We won. Now, let’s eat”.) How are the holidays religiously different vis-à-vis the prayers that are included in our holidays services? One series of prayers, the Hallel, is typically recited on other joyous festivals, such as Passover and Chanukah. But, we find a debate in the Talmud about saying these Hallel Prayers on Purim. Why don’t we recite Hallel? Rabbi Nachman states that the reading of the Megillah is Purim’s own Hallel – we don’t need the extra Hallel prayers as the Megillah “counts.” Rabbi Rava, by contrast, reminds us that Hallel prayers are said when Jews are typically free. For him, the inherent difference between Pesach and Purim is that, on Pesach the Jews were freed from slavery and from the authority of Pharaoh.
By contrast, even though they had been saved on Purim, they were only saved from immediate harm. They remainded under the authority of a foreign (not Jewish) king, Achashverosh. The true freedoms of Pesach, Chanukah and even Yom Haatzamut (Israel’s Independence Day) result in joy and prayerful appreciation for our own sovereignty. Purim, for all of its success, kept the Jews in the Persian diaspora.
Today, American Jews have been given the gift of freedom through democracy. We are able to live our lives as Jewish Americans in freedom – and this is a reason to rejoice! However, if we extend the lesson of Purim beyond our personal concerns, we have a responsi-bility to advocate for others’ freedoms – just as we would hope that they would advocate for our own freedom.
Currently, each of us is witness to others’ suffering, even as we enjoy relative peace and prosperity. We know that humans around the world, and even in our country and towns – all of us, we are taught, created in God’s Image – are enslaved: to hunger, to slave labor/non-living wages, to wholly unfair systems of government, to violence. I invite you, this Purim, to become more informed and to take action to help even a single life.
A final mitzvah of Purim, that I did not mention above, is Matanot L’evyonim, gifts to the poor. I am looking ahead this Purim with memories of the outstanding movie (and Best Picture nominee) Lion, still swirling in my mind. Lion tells the story of a five-year-old Indian boy who gets lost on the streets of Calcutta, thousands of kilometers from home. He survives many challenges before being adopted by a couple in Australia; 25 years later, he sets out to find his lost family. My Purim Tzedakah this year will help one of the extraordinary organizations that support children in India (80,000 go missing ever year). In the midst of celebrating our own Purim victory, let us remember our good fortune by paying it forward to assist the most needy on our planet.
Happy Purim to one and all.