The Purim Games

Purim is a chaotic, crazy-making holiday celebrating the story of Queen Esther and her heroic efforts to save the Jewish people of the time from annihilation. The story is known for its quick twists and turns in character and action. What is hidden becomes revealed, and what had been out in the open turns out to have been a figment of imagination. Perceptions change, and as they do, so does reality.

The story reminds us how quickly things in our own lives can turn upside-down and inside-out. And so, on Purim we wear masks and costumes. We conceal our daily selves and put on display colors that we normally keep invisible. We make merry, and some of us follow the injunction to drink wine until we no longer know the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai” — the two opposing characters in the story. We put on a play, the Purim spiel, recreating Queen Esther’s story, and we scream and rattle noisemakers whenever the name of the evil Haman is mentioned.

I have learned over the years that there is a particular wisdom to the way Jewish tradition connects to specific aspects of nature’s calendar.

Purim occurs in early spring — a time when life renews itself. The season can feel volatile, discombobulating. Temperatures fluctuate, we move from cold into warmth and back into cold again. It rains, it shines, it snows. And then, in one final push, new growth that had been gathering force below the surface breaks into light, revealing that which had been quietly nurtured, unseen, throughout the winter months. And just like that, the old and the stale of the passing season fall away, clearing the path for the steady and self-assured energies of Pesach.

I have been thinking about this over the last few weeks. They have been full of frustrations, emotional ups and downs, misunderstandings and unexpected twists and turns in my path. What seemed to be a stable foundation of my life is feeling shaky, the familiar — on the verge of vanishing. Suddenly, everything seems to be in question.

When these kinds of winds blow into your life, it’s hard to stay calm and collected. I feel enraged, I feel sad, my pride swells and crashes, the ego poses as a wounded martyr, takes an accusatory stance, then deflates again — as if trying out different costumes in the hope that one of them will get it what it needs: attention, praise, good feelings.

At times like these, I try to slow down and breathe air into the tight spots in my body that are created by these feelings. I ask myself: What is this really about? How much of it is just perception? What lesson is trying to come through?

I start to cast about for a framework that would help me understand. And in this case, here it is right in front of me: of course, it’s Purim! Once I get it, everything begins to fall into place. Yes, it’s just Purim, and I am simply caught up in an interplay of its mercurial  trickster energies.

This lens offers me a new perspective. If Purim is all about games and make-believe, then how much of what I am feeling is based simply on my interpretation of the truth? How much of it is true and how much — just Purim carnival? After all, if we are all wearing different masks at different times, isn’t it only a matter of time before the masks will change? The angry mask will give way to a laughing one, the sad one will be discarded in favor of a happy one. If I wanted to, I could even be the first to change my own mask — or better yet, remove it completely and by so doing invite others to do the same.

And at the same time, if my perceptions reflect reality, then how much of this change is simply new growth trying to break through in order to create something even better and more beautiful? This is something that can feel so difficult to accept: we want to hold on to that which we have created and nurtured for as long as we can. We want for things to stay exactly as they are. We resist change just like Esther at first resisted evolving into her purpose.

But as spring itself proves, that is an impossible wish — and constancy of change is one of the lessons of Purim. A formerly powerful queen chooses to disobey her husband’s orders and loses her royal stature but, perhaps, gains a sense of dignity in exchange. A young Jewish girl becomes queen in her stead and, through courageous action, opens a door to personal spiritual evolution and fulfills her purpose. King’s powerful adviser loses in a dangerous game of his own making and, perhaps for the first time in his life, learns through experience about consequences of one’s actions.

Every change opens a new door and teaches us something valuable about ourselves and our path. And what we have to do is to make our inner selves more limber, so that when life’s stronger currents pick up, we can simply flow with their quick shifts and turns, relax into them and trust that they will carry us to the right destination.

Viewing my situation in the playful and spiritual context of Purim helps me open new vistas, breathe air into the cramped quarters of the heart. What has Purim been teaching you?

Chag Purim Sameach!

About the Author
Izabella Tabarovsky is passionate about Jewish life and Israel. She grew up in Russia, has lived in the U.S. for over 25 years, and travels frequently to Israel. She works at the Kennan Institute in Washington, DC, where she focuses on the politics of historical memory of the Holocaust and Stalin's repressions in the former Soviet Union. Her writings have appeared in Newsweek, The Tablet Magazine, Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post Ivrit, The Wilson Quarterly, Kennan Cable, Russia File, and Science and Diplomacy, among others. The views expressed here are her own.
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