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Purim: Merriment amidst dread

Jews celebrate in the face of existential threat with faith that every incarnation of Amalek can be defeated

Purim is a holiday whose meaning is shrouded in mystery. The only clear element is what we are commanded to do on Purim as set forth at the end of the Scroll of Esther: read the Megilla, hold a festive meal, and give gifts to the poor.

This last mitzvah is not an administrative detail of a system of social justice. Yes, the Jewish people are commanded to pay a tax of half a shekel, as we read on Shabbat Shekalim, the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh Adar. But gifts to the poor are another matter; giving charity is an expression of the direct, mutual economic responsibility between people. The direct connection between people, even if hidden, has no substitute. On Purim, we are commanded to openly give a gift of food; even those of limited means are commanded to do so and to give charity according to their ability (Maimonides, Hilchot Megilla,2:14-19). When people share their food and their wealth and feel good will towards others, their own self-esteem is increased. They are brought closer to sharing the characteristics of the Creator who has given us life and the world.

Purim is also a holiday of joy, but the joy is incomplete, even forced. Contrast it to the joy commanded to us on Sukkot (Deuteronomy 16:14): this ‘time of joy’ is preceded by a lengthy spiritual preparation during the month of Elul and the High Holidays. For more than 40 days, we experience a deep personal and national process during which we gradually proceed from self-reflection and supplication to joyfulness. Purim, on the other hand, comes — and goes. True, we say when Adar enters that we ‘multiple our joy’ (Tractate Ta’anit 29a), but the obligation to drink wine and liquor indicates the forced nature of the merriment. It is not intrinsic; we must overcome something in order to be glad on Purim.

What is it that holds back the joy? The holiday is based on a threatening and chilling insight, the awareness of Amalek in each generation; that is to say, there exist powerful, sophisticated and hidden forces in the world that seek to erase Jews and Judaism from the face of the earth. This is the conceptual worldview of Haman the Aggagite, descendant of Amalek (Esther 3:6).

It is not clear from the Megilla what drives this worldview. Why do non-Jews want a world empty of Judaism and Jews?

The Bible does not say. It tells us only that Amalek is the grandson of Esau (Genesis 36:12) and tells of the prophecy of Balaam, which reveals that the worldview of Amalek is widespread in the world, but will disappear at the end of days (Numbers 24:20). How, then, are we to understand the meaning of the commandment to ‘blot out the memory of Amalek’ (Deuteronomy 25:19)? Who is Amalek and how do we blot him out in our day? Our Rabbis taught that in the days of the Messiah, the Creator Himself will fight alongside the Messiah and erase the threat of Amalek from the world (Tractate Sanhedrin 20b). But how can we be merry on a holiday that reminds us of the terrible threat that represents a danger to all human civilization, for, according to Judaism, a world without Jews or Torah is not human!

The answer provided by Halakha is that in the face of the threat, we must celebrate and have faith that Amalek can be defeated. Thus we make noise with the noisemaker, we dress up in costume, and we laugh at the mention of Haman’s name when the Megilla is read. We strengthen our family and community ties, by dining together, sending mishloach manot and giving charity. In parallel, of course, we defend ourselves and do what we must to prevent the realization of the threat to Jewish and universal redemption. As the prophets and sages of Israel envisioned: We the People of Israel should not despair of calamities.(Mishna Avot 1:7).

Dr. Einat Ramon, founding director of the academic spiritual care program Marpeh, at the Schechter Institute, where she lectures on gender issues, Jewish thought and Jewish history.

About the Author
Dr Einat Ramon is a lecturer in Jewish thought and women’s studies at the Schechter Institute and founder of the Marpeh Program for Health-Care Chaplaincy, which combines CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) with an MA degree in Schechter’s Family and Community Studies MA track
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