The (Higher) Power of Purim

Before I made aliyah, the holiday of Purim always made me a little self-conscious. Jewish kids—and many adults, too—walking the streets of New York in costume, delivering festive edibles to friends and neighbors, called a fair degree of public attention to our celebration of national salvation.

As Jerry Seinfeld would say, not that there’s anything wrong with that. As long as we aren’t breaking any laws or unduly burdening fellow citizens, we should be free to practice our religion anywhere in the Diaspora. However, Purim’s emphasis on unbridled merry-making—especially its sanctioning of increased alcohol consumption—raises the risk that those boundaries will be broken and, consequently, Judaism itself abased.

Even putting that risk aside, parading colorfully and outlandishly in the streets of New York is a bit like going outside in your bathrobe: not illegal, but odd and unseemly nonetheless.

Here in Israel, there is no such concern. The celebration is loud and proud, and Jews of all stripes get in on the action. This is our national homeland, so walking around Jerusalem in a rainbow wig, Bibi mask, or superhero getup on a sunny day in late winter is perfectly normal.

But there’s much more to this holiday than meets the eye. The story recounted in the Book of Esther is, in a sense, a political tale. Most of the drama takes place within the king’s court, and the entire miraculous turn of events occurs via official, bureaucratic channels. Indeed, after the king’s top aide bribes him to push through an antisemitic campaign, the law of the land circumscribes the ways that the evil decree can be overcome; direct reversal is impossible. The new, secret-Jewess queen exercises diplomacy par excellence to persuade the king to spare her people. Remarkably, even with the king’s full support, the Jews must still win their own freedom by prevailing in fierce battles with the enemy.

Although the Purim story takes place in ancient Persia and its constituent states, it delivers a message of hope and empowerment which is nowhere more apt than in the modern Jewish state. Only here can Jews from all corners of the globe proclaim their national pride without facing charges of dual loyalties. Only here are we a true collective, with the resources to protect and defend ourselves from the many threats we face from without. (From within? Unfortunately, that’s a whole different story.)

Other rituals of Purim showcase and strengthen these ideals. We gather together to read the megillah; we gift each other with food and treats and distribute charity to needy members of the community; we feast with family and friends. These actions shift the focus beyond the individual to the klal and reinforce the connections between us. Whereas the first Purim, when these customs were introduced, celebrated the Jews’ survival, Purim today celebrates our thriving as a people. Vibrant, spirited, bounteous, overflowing with promise. Palestinian Arabs hand out candy when Jews are slaughtered; we share sweets to say, “Am Israel Hai!”

With battles raging on so many fronts, it can’t hurt to have friends in high places. It’s amusing to picture Donald Trump as a contemporary, sympathetic yet fickle-minded and impulsive Ahaseurus. Casting powerful players on the world scene in megillah roles makes for good Purim seudah conversation.

But the vagaries of politics are such that trust in political leaders, domestic as well as foreign, is always a game of chance. Haman thought he had the king in his pocket and ended up hanging from a noose. The deal-changer for the Jews of Persia was having—and acknowledging—a Higher Power on their side. Among the many take-aways of Purim, let that timeless lesson inspire us in this unscripted era.

About the Author
Ziona Greenwald feels grateful to be living with her husband and children in Jerusalem, where she is a freelance writer and editor. She holds a J.D. from Fordham Law School, and worked both in publishing and in the court system back in New York, when Aliyah was still a dream to be realized.
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