I have to admit, Purim is bothering me this year. The seemingly unending number of social, cultural, and political ills that plague the world make it hard to feel light and frivolous. Quite the opposite, I’m feeling heavy and distressed. And yet, here we are — it’s Purim, and frivolity and fun are what’s called for.
One of the questions I’ve been asking myself in the lead-up to Purim is, how do we teach our children about the holiday? Of course, we need to teach them the story and its lessons — and give them an experience of genuine unbridled festivity and joy. But aren’t we also responsible for making them aware of the big picture, for good and for bad? And how do we do that, without getting too heavy on them or frightening them?
So we leave out the hard stuff. We generally don’t do a full reading of the Megillah, at least not in English. And that’s what’s bothering me this year.
The early Zionists called the Purim parade in Tel Aviv the Ad La Yada “until you don’t know” — referring to the so-called “mitzvah” to drink until you can’t distinguish between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman.”
This year, no amount of royal wine can blot out the memory of Haman or Amalek.
This year, the distinction between good and evil is so stark and obvious that “observing” ad la yada feels morally reprehensible. Purim this year feels to me like a very sober experience.
We know there’s a dark side to Purim; that’s nothing new. A full reading of the Megillah reveals a brutal coda to the story — when the Jews of Shushan take vengeance on their enemies and slaughter 75,000 souls.
I’m reminded of the story of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the Orthodox Israeli scientist and philosopher. Leibowitz was once was asked whether he would consider living outside Israel. He allegedly responded that, no, he would not, one reason being that Israel was the only place where he never had to celebrate Purim. On Purim, he could be in Jerusalem (a walled city), and the next day he could travel to Tel Aviv. Thus, he never had to read the Megillah nor drink to celebrate an act of bloody revenge.
The point of this story isn’t the clever way Leibowitz dodged Purim, but his statement about the challenging and painful aspects of the Purim story.
Children must have their innocence and costumes and fun —we owe them that — and we should enjoy some frivolity, too — to a point. When the world is constantly and horrifically hafuch, when moral standards are so upside-down and topsy-turvy, Ad La Yada feels, to me, like a betrayal of those who are suffering, of those who are victims of very real manifestations of Haman and Amalek.
So why not edit out the ugliness at the end of the Megillah? The late Bishop John Spong, in a book entitled Sins of Scripture, insists that it’s our responsibility to confront — again and again, over and over — the dark chapters of the Bible, lest we become complacent about the same painful realities that exist in the world in our day.
Yehuda Amichai warns about this very same thing in a powerful poem called, “From the Book of Esther I Filtered the Sediment”:
“From the Book of Esther I filtered the sediment
of vulgar joy, and from the Book of Jeremiah
the howl of pain in the guts. And from
the Song of Songs, the endless
search for love. And from the Book of Genesis,
the dreams and Cain. And from Ecclesiastes,
the despair, and from the Book of Job: Job.
And with what was left, I pasted myself a new Bible.
Now I live censored and pasted and limited and in peace.”
We don’t live in a neat, tidy, and sanitized world. Life isn’t like that. Be it the end of the Megillah, or the painful realities of racism and injustice, war on Ukraine, violence and oppression wherever it may be (including in our own hearts toward the other), let us confront these ills with sober judgment and unwavering commitment to tikkun olam. As Mordechai says to Esther: …perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” (Esther 4:14)
May our approach to living allow us to hold the pain and the joy together — may this be the life lesson we teach our children, in truth but with a light touch — so that we may celebrate the good in good conscience —and even raise a toast “to life!” l’chaim!
Rabbi Arnie Gluck
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