Fun for kids and grownups: carnivals, masquerades and hamantashen. Also thinking of others too — mishloach manot (sharing gifts of food) and matanot l’evyonim (giving gifts of money) are central mitzvot, as well as hearing the story of Esther on Purim night.
The day before Purim is not a jolly day. While we may be getting our costumes ready and preparing plates of hamantashen to share, the day before Purim is a Jewish fast day, Ta’anit Esther (the fast of Esther). Most liberal Jews I know ignore this and other fast days that appear in the Jewish calendar (except Yom Kippur, and maybe Tisha B’Av).
These “minor fasts” usually recall tragic events in Jewish history. Ta’anit Esther is different. First of all — spoiler alert — the Book of Esther is not historical. It’s a fictional account of Diaspora life as imagined in ancient Persia. The fast of Esther does not commemorate a tragedy; it is lifted from the account of Esther preparing to meet the king.
The Book is not only fiction, it is a farce. Every aspect of it is meant to be laughable. The king who approaches every occasion as an opportunity to hold a feast and get drunk. The Jewish woman who masquerades as queen, and whose identity is revealed at the critical moment, to save her people. The comedy of the villain leading his nemesis around town on a horse, following the king’s orders to sing his praises as the villain himself had wished to be praised. The book is filled with ludicrous reversals of fortune, similar to those found in comic opera or Shakespeare.
Even the dreadful denouement in chapter 8, when the Jews go on the rampage, is a communal catharsis, a ridiculous fantasy. Since the King cannot change his own decree (how ironic!), he gives the Jews “permission” to defend themselves against those who come to destroy them. In the process they slaughter 75,000 people, and while many others immediately chose to convert.
The Book of Esther was written at a time when it was inconceivable that Jews might be given permission to kill others, even in self-defense. Through times of persecution, exile, pogroms, and massacres, for one day a year Jews enjoyed the Purim celebrations and retold the Purim story as a time for release and revelry.
It can be difficult to recognize comedy in literature. I remembered first time I read Pride and Prejudice. No one told me that it contained satire. I only discovered the humor years later while watching numerous film versions of Jane Austen’s masterpiece and howling with laughter.
Reading the 8th chapter of Esther in our own day, particularly in a political environment poisoned by vicious hatred, raises legitimate concerns. The violence is worthy of being noted and condemned. However, those who believe these passages provide a precedent for violence today are missing the point of the story. Not just for the Jews but among persecuted peoples everywhere, playfully imagining the destruction of one’s attackers is not akin to real violence. While we need to be careful about the link between violent speech and violent action, we also need to be able to see cartoon humor for what it is.
Nevertheless, some contemporary Jewish extremists have misread these sections and used them as a mandate for violence against any enemies of the Jewish people. These Jews are wrong and their actions bring shame on all Jews. For this reason, I choose to fast on Ta’anit Esther. This is the way that I respond to the fantasy violence in the Purim story — by grieving the deaths of those who have been the victims of Jewish hatred. I was living in Israel when Baruch Goldstein slaughtered innocent Muslims at prayer on Purim. Most Jews were shocked by this immoral act. Baruch Goldstein not only did violence to innocent Muslims, he violated Purim itself. Just as the Fast of Esther was the queen’s way of acknowledging the danger that awaited her when she went, unbidden, to see the king, this fast is my own “tikkun,” my personal act of repair, for the danger that has been unleashed from the Purim story.
I love Purim and I deplore violence. Yet I choose to celebrate the holiday with abandon, and I refuse to delete the offending passages. One essential lesson of Purim is to recognize that we can hold joy and humor at the same time we acknowledge grief and suffering. The world is filled with both. One of my very favorite rabbinic takes on Purim addresses this paradox directly.
Rabbah and Rabbi Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became drunk and Rabbah arose and killed Rabbi Zera. On the next day, he prayed on Rabbi Zerra’s behalf and bought him back to life. Next year, Rabbah said: “Will your honor come and we will have the Purim feast together?” Rabbi Zera replied: “A miracle does not take place on every occasion.” (Talmud Megillah)
This is a Talmudic joke, built on a terrifying story. That’s the poignant truth of Purim, right there. Celebrate until your heart’s content, and be wary of the dangers.
As my colleague, Rabbi Rena Blumenthal, has written so beautifully:
“Purim is the most exhilaratingly honest of holidays. For one day a year we stop pretending that we understand the way of the world, that we know the purpose of our lives, that we can possibly comprehend God’s will.… We playfully hold up the idolatrous masks under which we have been hiding, laugh at our elaborately costumed selves, and, in opening our hearts to the terrifying truth of the human masquerade, experience deep liberation and joy.”
Wishing you joy, even amidst our fear and sorrow.
Rabbi Barbara Penzner