Stephen Daniel Arnoff
Author, Teacher, and Community Leader

Purim Is No Joke

A friend reminded me of an old joke this week:

Do you know the difference between a pessimist and an optimist?  The pessimist says, ‘It can’t possibly get any worse than this.’ The optimist says, ‘Of course it can!’

How do we find optimism and a will to work for positive change in the face of seemingly overwhelming challenges? Where do we locate hope amidst the paralyzing losses of the quagmire in Gaza, virulent antisemitism, and lingering threats of a full blown conflict in Israel’s North? With so much despair and worry around us, how do we avoid pessimism that sinks us further into darkness? Purim, which addresses such worries in the guise of a joke, offers ideas to ponder.

Many of the serious messages of Purim are encoded in word play. The centrality of the concept of “hester panim” or “the concealed face of God,” which also alludes to “Esther’s face,” or “ha-panim shel Esther,”  is an inside joke about the fact that the Book of Esther is the only text in the Hebrew Bible, except for the Song of Songs, that does not mention the name of God explicitly.

It is not clear if the Jewish disconnect with the divine in the Book of Esther is the result of God’s withdrawal during the destruction of the First Temple – from which Mordechai and Esther’s ancestors are said to have fled – or if God grows distant from the Jews only gradually because of their assimilation in Persia. Either way, the story intimates that a people have lost their protector, and that makes Haman’s job easy, at least for a while.

We celebrate Purim as a kind of Jewish Mardi Gras, a ritualized anti-structure, breaking down day-to-day personae by covering faces with masks just as the Divine seems to have done in the original tale. Until Esther takes Mordechai’s advice to stand up for who she is and fight for her people, she represents how the Jews of Persia have lost their bearings to their rightful place in the world, to their own culture, and to their Creator. One psycho-theological reading of the Book of Esther is that it is a parable for how connectedness with God depends upon fully embracing one’s own self.

Purim celebrates jokes and riddles, drinking, and flipping our woe on its head. But it is also a reminder to dig deeper into who we are, what we care about, and why we are here in order to find a lit path out of the darkness of feeling abandoned or lost.

One of the best ways to find ourselves is to dedicate energy to something greater than ourselves – to serve others, to be of use, to dream of a better world. Purim is a wake-up call, a search for the clear face of optimism in a confusing hall of mirrors. Getting lost can make you laugh or it can make you cry, but above all it makes you think about what really matters. And that’s no joke.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Daniel Arnoff is the CEO of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center and author of the book About Man and God and Law: The Spiritual Wisdom of Bob Dylan.
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