So, it’s Purim night and different family members are planning their (mis)adventures, each according to his or her situation. Despite the fact that significant drinking according to most opinions is related to Purim day and not Purim night, the prevalence of alcohol make it a nerve-wracking holiday for parents and anywhere from fun to frightening for youth.
As a teacher for high school age girls, my concerns are for my wonderful (!!) students and their peers, especially the ones who are too old to simply help prepare mishloach manot and go to bed, but are too young to be out and about on their own — or at least you (and I) don’t want them out and about, because it’s unsafe, more so than on a regular night because of the alcohol. So where is your daughter, where are my students, on Purim night? Of course, it depends on the girl — on her school, on your community, on her youth group…. The shy daughter prefers to stay (or hide) at home. The outgoing one, unless you put your foot down, is out at parties, some of which you think will be okay and others about which you know little or nothing.
The daughters who are at home or at school parties with direct transportation home afterwards are the safest. And there are some wonderful school programs out there for girls on Purim night. But I am worried about the ones who have limited options — how do they feel about Purim? Do they feel like they are celebrating with all their hearts or do they experience FOMO (fear of missing out), or boredom, or frustration at a holiday whose deepest (or wildest) experiences don’t seem to belong to them?
Before describing how I chose to address the specific difficulty of Purim night for teenage girls, it is important to explain how I view Purim as a holiday, not only for young people, but for all people — men and women — of any age. How should one prepare for Purim and how does that preparation influence one’s experience of it? The alcohol confuses matters, so let’s put it aside for now.
Purim is first and foremost, a celebration of Torah. This seems like an odd definition, given that Purim is commonly known as the holiday of a great and unexpected salvation of a diaspora community. However, the story of Purim, recorded in Megillat Esther, was not only included in the canon, but cited in the Jerusalem Talmud (1:5) as the only book other than the Five Books of Moses that would remain relevant after the coming of the messiah.
The miraculous “happenstances” of the Purim story, told without once referring to G-d, seem like an anomaly in the context of a religious text, and yet this text is the only one whose writing is required to be similar to that of a Torah (a hand-scribed scroll, etc). One of the reasons cited for the importance of Megillat Esther is that it acts as a chain linking the Written Law, that which is contained in the Five Books of Moses and learned directly from it, to the Oral Law, which includes additional rabbinic strictures and interpretations, which have developed over the course of an inter-generational conversation that spans centuries (Sfat Emet, “Purim” 5646). Another explanation suggested by the Talmud (Shabbat 88b) is that the diaspora Jews of the Purim story finished an important journey begun by the Jews who received the Torah in the desert — they chose, of their own free will and not as a result of coercion, to follow the laws of the Torah regardless of the distance between them and the recognizable revelation of G-d in their lives.
In addition, the Purim story is about our connection to G-d even when we are distant from Him, and how our fate is in His hands. Although prayer and G-d are not explicitly mentioned in Megillat Esther, there are numerous allusions to G-d’s presence in the story, and the message is clear that even when G-d seems hidden, He hears and sees our prayers and fasting, which can, under the right circumstances, change our lot from doom to glory. Those who suggest that the counterpart to Purim is the Day of Atonement, Yom Hakippurim, may have been referring to the similarity between the two days, the fasting which precipitates the cancellation of an evil decree, which is a sign of G-d’s involvement in our lives.
According to these two suggestions, Purim is about accepting the Torah, our deep connection to G-d and His connection to us, and the possibility for prayer to overturn the worst of fates. It is quite the combination of Shavuot, the holiday of Matan Torah, and Yom Kippur. Perhaps one can, for good measure, also throw in Passover, the spring holiday of salvation. Given that it represents such an overwhelming number of critical themes and tenets of our faith, it is no wonder that Purim is a holiday of great joy.
So how does one prepare for Purim? According to Rav Shlomo Wolbe in Alei Shur (vol. 1, p. 48), joy needs to be prefaced by preparation in order to be meaningful. As the Day of Atonement is preceded by a month of special prayers, and 10 days of more intense prayer and thought, so too Purim must be preceded by consideration of joy and thanks, with particular attention given to our happiness at being chosen to have a special relationship with G-d, and to have received His most treasured possession, His word, the Torah. When Purim arrives, we should take the energy of the days during which we prepared for it and channel it into publicizing the miracle (by reading the megillah), caring for others (through charity and mishloach manot), and thanking G-d — with all our hearts and souls — for all the good He has bestowed on us.
These ideas have been percolating in the Midrasha Tichonit Afikim in Givat Washington, the new Israeli high school for girls I founded last year. The school is for girls who want to grow deeply and meaningfully in Torah and tefilla (prayer), while studying all the general studies subjects taught in religious national high schools. Getting ready for Purim in our beit midrash (study hall) involves soul searching and joy, Torah study and reaching out to others. Our celebration on Purim night celebrates Torah — there are girls and women who finish a significant learning project at the party so that the break-fast is a seudat mitzvah (a ceremonial meal). The dancing afterwards thunders with the joy of Torah. At a later point in the night, slower songs invite prayer, introspection, and the hopes of overturning all evil decrees.
The best part is – this approach is something you can reproduce in your own community. Gather women and girls and together celebrate Torah, dance, sing, and make some time for moments of quieter study and inspiration. At Afikim, we open our doors wide. My concern is for girls, no matter the school in which they are enrolled. And therefore, women and girls everywhere are invited, and there is even transportation that we organize to many parts of the country when it is over. Your daughters are invited, and we’d be honored to have them (and their mothers and their sisters) join us. There won’t be any alcohol. There isn’t any need for alcohol — we are “drunk” on the sweetness of G-d’s gifts, for which we are eternally grateful.