What does Purim feel like Post 10/7?

This is our first Purim in Israel as olim (immigrants). I heard the question “how can we celebrate and be happy at such a time”? asked several times.

The resounding idea came through that even more so, we should celebrate this year. We are here, together, with the opportunity to celebrate a holiday which embodies unity and love, exchanging gifts, sharing meals, including others. We have this precious moment, this one life, whose fragility renders it even more exquisite. We need to affirm that we are here. When Purim and Chanukah are contrasted, Purim is seen as the holiday of physical survival, its celebration expressed in physical, embodied actions.

There is no hallel (songs of praise) on Purim, and there is an idea that the megillah itself is a form of hallel, prayer; great praise for the possibilities of “ve-na-ha-foch hu”: things can be turned around, for the good.

God’s name is famously absent from the Megillah. But God is present in the story in allusions. Mordechai says to Esther: “perhaps it is for this moment that you arose to royalty”; perhaps there is divine intervention in the time and place you find yourself in a particular moment. Mordechai and Esther have to take things into their own hands, facing great uncertainty and very high stakes. Esther turns to God and invokes Jewish unity, asking Mordechai to gather all the Jewish people for 3 days of fasting and prayer.

These are hard times, and for some it hasn’t been easy to commune with God. Confusing times too, when villain and victim have gotten mixed up and changed places, reminding me of the injunction to get so drunk that you can’t tell Mordechai from Haman.

I find myself desperate for divine presence, to help us through these deeply confusing times which can feel like times of “hester panim”, when the divine presence feels hidden or even absent. Like the Jewish people in the desert, we want a clear sign that God is with us.

But the megillah speaks to this very condition of absurdity. There are crazy, comical moments in the megillah in which rationality and Godliness seem to be in exile. A Persian king feasting with the spoils of the holy temple for more than 180 days, having his wife murdered for failing to parade around according to his drunken whims, agreeing to murder the Jewish people at Haman’s suggestion (it doesn’t seem to be a hard sell), reversing the decree without a question when his beloved wife requests it. It all seems random and absurd with no higher order or meaning, where things blow like the wind according to human whims.

And yet this is the challenge of the megillah. The story is filled with irony and deft inversions and redolent with the undercurrent of divine presence.

I find myself playing with theological and metaphysical questions of what divine presence means, and I am reminded of an illuminating discussion held at Matan Institute in Ra’anana a few weeks ago, where Dr. Tanya White, Professor Joshua Berman and Dr. Yosefa Fogel Wruble grappled with the question of relating to the divine in the aftermath of October 7th.

Drawing on the late Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ thought, Tanya White spoke about Judaism in our time as calling for our response. We live in a post-prophetic era, where we are called upon to act without direct revelation in a way that affirms our commitment to our people and our tradition, and to bear the vulnerability of not knowing the divine mind, but trying to make space to turn to God in quiet moments and cacophanous moments, in the still small voice and with drums and song and banging and desperation.

I sense a deep fear in all of us, which perhaps resonates with the stories of the Jewish people in the desert and with our exiles and history of persecution, where we felt abandoned and needed something to hold onto. Sometimes it feels like reaching for something in the dark. People talk of unprecedented times. Unprecedented times by definition have no precedent, and leave us with no playbook for the way through. The megillah comes to speak to our collective soul, to remind us of something beyond our immediate times that holds us as a people; our tradition.

Purim day holds within it a sense of the transformative, expressed through ideas around costume and pantomime. There is something other-worldly about this day of play and possibility, beyond the cerebral and the political, which I think was a balm this year more than ever.

About the Author
Leanne Stillerman Zabow lived and worked as a clinical psychologist in Johannesburg, South Africa, before moving to Raanana, Israel with her family in 2023, where she runs a psychotherapy practice online and in-person.