Purim (as I understand it) celebrates Jewish victory over enemies who sought to destroy us. We killed a bunch of them before they killed us. Two things: What's with the costumes? And: In this day and age where we actually have a sovereign state with an army, isn't it rather insensitive to celebrate this holiday?
Why costumes on Purim? What purpose do they serve? Is Purim merely a victory over enemies who sought to destroy the Jewish people? Is it just a story of war and victory?-
Purim symbolizes a number of significant symbolic messages to the Jewish people.
HaRav Dovid Ben Zimra, (Radbaz) an ancient Chief Rabbi of Egypt posed the following poignant question: Mordechai placed his people in jeopardy by not bowing to Haman. Why didn’t he flee or leave Shushan so as to not anger Haman? Tradition has it that Haman had an idol on his chest. Mordechai believed it was forbidden to bow before him. He was willing to sacrifice his own life to portray publicly that idolatry was forbidden. He never believed that Haman would decide to exterminate the entire Jewish population because of Mordechai’s refusal to bow. In addition, never did he think that the king would agree to Haman’s petition to kill out the entire Jewish people (Responsa Radbaz, Vol.I No. 186) Accordingly the Purim story teaches us that the action of just one Jew could generate a pogrom against the entire nation. This is a lesson with relevance even in an age where Israel is a nation with a mighty army.
The Maharal of Prague contends that the story of Purim teaches us that at times logic and rationale simply are not operational in life. Look at the story. See what took place. Two people wished to kill the king yet were killed in return. Haman believed the king wanted a method to honor himself,and , therefore,, gave an honor he sought, yet, the King responded that this should be done to Mordechai.by Haman. Haman wished to kill Jews. He was killed in return. The tree that was set up to hang Mordechai and his family was , instead used to Hang Haman and his family.The story was as said in Hebrew- V’nahapachu-just the opposite of what was planned. For this reason costumes are worn to demonstrate that the real person is never really known or to be identified.Everyone wears masks. Sometimes with costumes. Sometimes without.No one really knows the real person or the real picture of events.In such times, the God of Israel watches over our people.
You are not alone in having doubts about the celebration of Purim. In Israel, Purim is marked on two different days: regular Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar in places like Tel Aviv and Haifa, and Shushan Purim, celebrated in ancient walled cities, on the 15th of Adar. Those who enjoy Purim can celebrate the holiday on the 14th of Adar in Tel Aviv and then jump in their car dash off to Jerusalem to celebrate Shushan Purim in Jerusalem on the 15th of Adar. On the other hand, those who are more circumspect about this holiday can spend the 14th of Adar in Jerusalem and the 15th of Adar in Tel Aviv; they will never be in a place where Purim is taking place!
Purim is a strange holiday. Megillat Esther, the basis of this holiday, is the only book of the Bible that does not contain God’s name. It is a story containing debauchery, drunkenness, lewd behavior and hidden identities. In many ways it is both a comedy and a satire. Even the hero and heroine are a bit strange: the name, Mordechai, is derived from Marduk, the main god in the Babylonian pantheon, and Esther is connected to Ishtar, a Babylonian goddess. The final chapters of the Megillah describe a battle in which the Jewish people kill and convert their enemies. This chapter is so shocking that many editions of the Megillah do not even provide a full translation of this chapter.
So why do we celebrate Purim today? What does the militancy of this story mean for us at a time when the Jewish people have an army of its own to defend the interests of Israel? And what is the whole business of costumes and masks, carnivals and banquets, and the somewhat permissive attitude toward drinking. It seems that every culture needs to have a day when people can let loose and be lax about the standards of normal behavior. Anthropologists call such occasions, rites of reversal. According to anthropologist Philips Stevens, rites of reversal are “ceremonial situations that allow for the reversal of appropriate behaviors that typically occur at transitional times between periods of intense activity. Western tradition has had several rites of reversal for adults—New Year's Eve, Mardi Gras, May Day, Oktoberfest, the like…”
While there are some questionable elements in the story and celebration of Purim, I would suggest that we are not meant to take this holiday or ourselves too seriously. Purim offers us an opportunity to laugh at ourselves and at our deepest fears. In a time of Jewish autonomy, we still need to acknowledge the existence of hatred and intolerance in the world. Purim suggests that we can do so by laughing at it. The Talmud says: “When we enter the month of Adar we increase merrymaking.” Rather than focusing on violence and drunkenness, we focus on bringing joy to others and helping the needy in our community.
There is a profound side to Purim as well. The absence of God in the Megillah does not mean that God is totally absent from this story. The people of Shushan are saved from annihilation through a series of coincidences that take place. When Mordechai asks Esther to go to the king and speak out for her people, he says, “Do not imagine that you of all the Jews will escape with your life…and who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just this crisis.” Mordechai seems to suggest that Esther’s rise to power was not a coincidence; it was a product of the hidden hand of God in her life. Esther’s name, it has been suggested, comes from the Hebrew root nistar, hidden. She is the hidden presence of God in the world. Masks and costumes, then, can be seen as an expression of the hidden face of God in the world.
I should add a word about Haman. According to the Megillah, Haman is a descendent of Amalek, the same tribe the cruelly attacked the people of Israel shortly after they left Egypt. The Torah tells us that the Amalekites attacked the weakest element of the nation in a murderous desire to destroy the Israelites. Amalek would emerge again in the time of King Saul and again in the Mordechai and Esther. It represents the face of hatred which slanders and plots against Israel. Is Amalek gone from the world? I think not. We have seen the face of Amalek in Hitler and Stalin in our own day. We have seen the face of Haman in all those who have promoted and practiced genocide against other nations of the world as well. Purim suggests that it is not enough to turn the other cheek in the face of such hatred – we must sometimes wage war against it. This is the darker side of Purim.
It has been said that Judaism encompasses the full gamut of human emotions. The holiday cycle reminds us that nothing is foreign or strange to God. Purim suggests that sometimes we can even serve God through silliness and merriment.We all wear masks – even God. Purim is simply the one time of year that we acknowledge that we are wearing them!!
When can dressing in “drag” (Jewish “drag” that is) save your life? When there is a royal edict for your murder and pretending to be a Jew will spare your head.
Towards the end of the Purim story, found in the Book of Esther in the Bible, the King is made aware that the only way to reverse his edict to wipe out the Jews is to find another group of people to murder in their place. So that the story ends with mitigated bloodshed, some of the people take on the appearance of Jews to save their lives. Chapter 8 verse 17 states that they “Taken on the appearance of Jews”, “Mit’Yahadim” in the Hebrew. Had they had a full blown conversion to Judaism, the word “Mit’Gayarim” “They became Us” would have been used. From this reading of the story, it follows that costuming in commemoration of the holiday makes sense. How we got to a place where dressing as Spiderman for Purim in Israel makes sense, that is a question for another day?
The second part of your question takes a bit more thought and a personal response. I am not sure how Israel’s statehood and standing army creates “insensitivity’ by continuing to celebrate Purim. However, I do understand that celebrating holidays that commemorate the mass destruction of others, for our benefit, does not follow from the values that exemplify Jewish life and Jewish choices. The celebration of Purim, Chanukkah, and Passover all carry with them the challenge of commemorating the destruction of others to support our own growth and development as a people and a religion. Whether it is the neighboring people of Shushan, the Jews who assimilated during the Assyrian occupation of Jerusalem, or the Pharaoh’s army and the first born males of Egypt, commemorating these losses with joy runs counter to Jewish moral sensibilities.
Every year as we approach these Holidays, I remind my community and the people I celebrate with, that these stories are just that… “stories”. They are intended to teach us truths about human nature while keeping us connected to a history of wrestling with difficult questions about human frailty, power, and the delicate balance between the two. A piece of Purim celebrations is intended to remind us of the power of people to change human destiny and the unforeseen consequences of making those changes. While Esther and Mordechai intend to save the Jews, the story does not support that they also intended the destruction of others in their place. That loss of life is the unintended consequence of their ability to make change.
As we have seen so many times over, when nations go into other nations to assist governmental change for the betterment of the people, and to save lives, we often put in place new challenges to the structures and dynamics of the citizens found there. The loss of life generated by new regimes, created by the shifting of the balance of power, is part of the unintended effect of the potentially noble efforts generating change in the first place. Reading and engaging the the sotries of our past enables us to reconsider our actions and give us the potential to act with broader vision. By retelling the story in a way that allows us to connect fully, as costumes open us up to “be” the characters we read about, we are better able to see beyond the immediate result of our actions prior to making a bigger mess of hte world.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if, one day soon, celebration of Jewish holidays would lead to thought and behavior that would ultimately change the course of human existence toward unmitigated good? For that, I suggest we hold a royal costume ball.
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