Purim is/was officially Thursday, and for those who live in a walled city (NIH doesn’t qualify but Jerusalem does) also on Friday. I saw a commentary on a rather unique Purim observance that got me agitated but also helped generate a little perspective on violence such as we saw this week in Belgium.
Most of us know that Purim is the story of the evil Haman who, dissed by the Jewish courtier Mordechai, bribed King Ahashverosh to kill all the Jews in his kingdom. Thanks to Queen Esther, the Jews managed to depose Haman and the King let them fight back and slaughter those who would have attacked them.
There are four ways to observe the Purim holiday that are listed in the Book of Esther itself – reading the story, exchanging gifts, giving charity, and having a late day feast. In the fourth century the sage Rava added a fifth – “A person is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between ‘blessed is Mordecai’ and ‘cursed is Haman.’” What is that all about? It can’t just be about partying can it?
The commentary that agitated me says that it reveals the “dark heart of Rava’s understanding of Purim.” To quote, “The fact that the Jews fought back and slaughtered the Persians was not a ‘happy ever after’ ending to the story. It was but a pause in the cycle of violence that was enabled by the continuing reign of King Ahashverosh who gave power to the faction with the greatest sway and the most money. Under Ahashverosh’s reign (which is our unredeemed world) there is no final act of violence which brings peace.” So, I think the commentary – as flimsy as is its basis – is saying that we get drunk because there is no way out of violence and why bother to be sober.
This commentary, from a rabbinic school professor writing for Peace Now, then launches into a discussion of violence in Israel, mostly that perpetrated by Israelis, and the ongoing abuses of the West Bank “occupation.” “Sadly,” the professor goes on, “the necessary defensive violence of the Six Day War has turned into the violence of oppression, and occupation.” Violence leads to violence, and the “only way out is to stop supporting the occupation.” This midrash makes my blood boil. The “occupation” is the result of the war to destroy Israel, nobody likes it, but absent a partner for peace, and not wanting another Gaza (which would be twenty times worse than Gaza has been since Israel unoccupied it), Israel has little choice but to retain the status quo.
Peace Now hasn’t retained my services, and won’t, but I see the injunction to get at least a little drunk on Purim in a very different way. It’s not a political statement but a reality statement. The news of the world is often going to be unsettling. We ourselves usually can’t fix it. The Belgians certainly can’t, at least by themselves. And things seem to be trending in bad directions. I feel a sense of fear and societal instability beyond what I have seen in the past, and I don’t see it getting much better anytime soon. So, we need to steel ourselves for what will transpire, not be naive about the dangers but not be paralyzed by them, and occasionally have some fun. That is what Purim holds out for us, always has, and it’s why I think Rava said we should take a little break from sobriety and responsibility. We need it and we deserve it.
Wishing you a good Shabbat and nice spring weekend. Bill Rudolph