I have never appreciated Purim. Each year I try to get into the spirit of the day, but services are loud and I don’t like loud. I become annoyed and irritated. The noise from the groggers is grating. I don’t like watching rabbis dress up in costumes. We have permission to get drunk. I don’t like getting drunk. The energy is over the top, ridiculous and absurd. I prefer holidays that are calming. I love Shabbat and the quiet it brings and the high holidays with their focus on self-reflection. In my effort to be a good congregant, I sometimes, but not always, reluctantly go to synagogue on Purim dressed up as Esther. I wear a long maroon, velvet dress and a paper gold crown that I purchased at a toy store in Tribeca.
I study Torah each week with my rabbi who has made the text and the tradition come alive for me in a way it never has before. More and more I see that if there is something in the text I don’t like, it’s because I have not encountered a circumstance where I understand its applicability. I have not appreciated Purim until now.
I have never been comfortable with the story. It’s dark and violent. Haman plots to annihilate the Jewish people. He fails and is executed. Queen Esther is an unlikely heroine. She is a beauty queen, who becomes the queen of Persia and is forced to hide her Judaism from her husband, the king. Her uncle, Mordechai, tells her of the plot and pleads with Esther to ask the king to intervene. She is afraid the king will kill her when he learns she is Jewish and for approaching him without permission. But she finds courage, agrees and says, “If I perish, I perish.”
This year, Purim comes when a war in Europe is unfolding and the holiday is a surprising source of reassurance. Purim affirms that there is a response to tyranny and that response is being demonstrated by the Ukrainian people who are remarkably brave, committed and very willing to fight.
The Ukrainian people have captured the imagination of the world and while their bravery and sacrifice inspires us, I also find myself feeling ashamed and helpless. The experience of being a bystander is absurd. I sit in the comfort of my home watching a war in Europe unfold, while making my bed, folding my laundry, and looking at my phone. This past weekend brought a wintery cold day of snow and freezing rain. The wind was howling. I spent the day reading, warm and cozy under the covers, while in Ukraine pregnant women are taken out of hospitals on stretchers, and old people try to keep their balance while walking on wet wood planks and rocks as they cross streams.
When I eat a nice meal, I think of the people who just a few short weeks ago were eating a nice meal in their warm homes, who probably felt cozy, under their blankets. I experience my comfort as somewhat immoral and my television watching as wrong, as millions of people have become refugees running from their homes in the freezing cold with no food or water.
With Purim upon us this week, I look to the holiday for guidance. What does Purim teach about the present situation? Among the lessons is that leadership can come from unexpected people. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is as unlikely a hero as Esther is a heroine. A former actor and comedian, a contestant on Ukraine’s version of Dancing with the Stars, Zelensky is a deeply heroic figure. His courage and resolve are a surprise.
The Ukrainians are demonstrating the courage that brings meaning to life. Their nation’s representatives are surprisingly young, charismatic and brave. They are parents with small children describing to the world their decisions to stay put. Witnessing that kind of courage changes people, makes us better, makes us want to be better.
I draw hope from the fact that in the story of Purim, the plot to annihilate the Jewish people was stopped. I am praying that a miracle will occur for Ukraine, that bravery and immense sacrifice will overcome tyranny. In the meantime, I will go to celebrate Purim with a newfound appreciation for the noise, the costumes and the holiday’s spirit of heroism. I will especially appreciate booing when the villain’s name is spoken. I will also go to pray for a miracle for the people of Ukraine.