Why I No Longer Celebrate the Jewish Holiday of Purim
Purim is fun. It’s the Jewish holiday where everyone dresses up (think Halloween/Mardi Gras), recounts the story of Purim (while boo’ing the villain Persian Haman, and cheering the great Jew Mordechai), and gets wasted (to the extent of being “obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’”)
The Purim story is one about a country turning against the Jews living there, and the Jews’ redemption therein. The king, through his official Haman, decree to kill off all the Jews in the region. And yet the king happens to be married to a Jew, Queen Esther, who stands up for her people to save them.
Okay here’s what I love about Purim: that narrative, and it’s the only Hebrew Bible story that doesn’t mention God. Such a beautiful thing, and wonderful progression, where the Jews are under attack and yet God isn’t there to save them. No prayer, no deus ex machina – it takes the humans to do their work to survive. No more floods, or burning bushes, or plagues, or seas splitting… just people.
Such a wonderful tzimtzum (don’t know? I’ll explain another time, happily) narrative about the absence of God creating the human imperative to save ourselves. Lovely.
But then… the Jews win… and they decide to use the opportunity as revenge.
They start by slaughtering 500 people in the king’s district. (This even while many locals falsely declare they’re Jews… which feels uncannily like an inverse Inquisition, et al).
Then they impale all 10 of Haman’s sons.
This – always makes me feel dirty around the boo’ing of Haman. Sure, he was a terrible human, but as my daughter said, in light of his evilness coming to light: “Couldn’t they have learned from their father’s mistakes?”
Yes. Yes they can.
(Quick Torah reflection herein: in Exodus it’s said God punishes sins upon the third and fourth generations to come. But, in Ezekiel, God states: “this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel; Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.”)
And also: continuous revelation, modern sensibilities, f that.
Okay but then the Purim story continues. The Jews of the land end up slaughtering 75,000 people who apparently sought to kill them.
On one side: self-defense. Or perhaps revenge.
But: the Jews were no longer in threat, due to the King’s decree therein.
And, revenge? This is where my rejection comes in wholeheartedly.
I firmly believe that the call of the Jews it to be the light unto nations, and part of the responsibility therein is to not fall folly to the same emotional (and violent) outrage the befalls others. Let me take that further: I think our responsibility is modeling a holiness, and reaction therein, that doesn’t fall prey to the same evil impulses as others — even the others that turn against us.
Let’s go modern/direct: should we feel celebration should we have been able to murder countless Nazi/Germans as retaliation for the Holocaust? (And perhaps their children, as well, a la Purim)
My answer: absolutely f’ing not. It’s another conversation altogether, but where Jewish wisdom leads me is to consider the subjectivity AND the divinity in each of those misguided humans to be able to land at a point of compassion, or maybe just acceptance, of them.
And compassion/acceptance does not, obviously, lead to slaughter.
So the conclusion of Purim leading to the slaughter of 75,510 (+/-) people: nope. I’m not okay with, let alone celebrating, that.
And yet I’ll read the story every year. And I’ll eat Haman’s hat.
But I’ll use it as a way to reflect on the need to be better.
Because here’s the hard and painful twist to my favorite aspect of Purim above: it is ALL ABOUT when God isn’t there, and we’re left to our own devices, when we are able to make our own (possible terrible) decisions.
I’d love for God’s absence to yield human goodness. But in Purim, it leads to slaughter.
And I’d argue, God’s absence today has led to many terrible actions in the name of a Jewish People.
So, my new take: perhaps the Purim story is a warning: where God is absent, yes let’s make sure to preserve ourselves.
But let’s also be damn sure that our preservation is not turned against others in a way that’s contrary to our true, and transcendent, values.