Why Purim will even outlast Yom Kippur

It may be the closest Judaism gets to carnival, but Purim is a deeply religious festival

By Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, March 5, 2009
Ruby Bass and Louis Gordon partying for Purim at Brighton’s Torah Academy last year

Ruby Bass and Louis Gordon partying for Purim at Brighton’s Torah Academy last year

I love finding new messages whenever one returns to biblical texts. As a teenager, I discovered that Mordecai sounded like the Sumerian deity Marduk, who was adopted as the patron god of Babylon, and Esther sounded like Astarte, or Ishtar, the Mediterranean goddess of fertility, sex and much else besides.

“Wow,” I thought in the first flush of teenage rebelliousness, “this means the whole story might have been a myth.” But then I realised that most of us have names taken from the past one way or another. A greater historical difficulty is identifying which Persian monarch Ahasuerus might have been. Atarxerxes the First or the Second, a simple Xerxes or a Darius?

The story sounds like a tale from the Arabian Nights. Beautiful young virgin wins a competition and seduces fat, good-natured but ineffectual king. She marries him and finds herself in a position to save her maligned and libelled people from genocide. It is a story of forces of good and purity overcoming evil, apathy and incompetence.

Yet it could be a philosopher’s tale of epicurean excess defeated by stoic self-discipline. Ahasuerus and Haman eat and drink to excess whereas Esther and Mordecai fast and pray.

Haman and Ahasuerus talk of money and profit and, on the other hand, the Jews who simply defend themselves celebrate by elevating friendship and charity, helping the poor and giving gifts to each other. Look how often it says that they refused to touch the spoils. You might think that at this moment of financial collapse and Ponzi schemes, we have let the diaspora affect us negatively. Yet the language of the Megillah reiterates the theme of “veyahafochu”, “everything will be changed”, sadness and fear turn to joy and relief. Nothing is ever static. For better and for worse, take nothing for granted! Be adaptable but be prepared.

The setting is authentic enough. Around 2,500 years ago, the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judea several times. In the political tug of war with Egypt, that little patch of Judean territory controlled the trade routes and military lines of communication between the two greatest empires of the day. And that was long before they discovered oil. The Judean politicians consistently made the wrong decisions and ended up losing everything; Jerusalem, Temple and Land. That too is a relevant enough theme.

The Assyrians destroyed the Ten Northern tribes of Israel 200 years earlier. They scattered their victims around their empire and replaced them with other uprooted peoples. In contrast, the Babylonians kept their captive nations together, benefiting from their communal cohesion and talents. When Persia conquered Babylon, cities such as Susa, Shushan, became centres of Jewish life.

As with the later Romans, different religions were accepted in the empire so long as they recognised the supreme political authority of the regime. Mordecai had proved his loyalty by revealing the “terrorist” plot of Bigthan and Teresh to assassinate the King. So Haman’s claim in the Megillah that the Jews were hated as a “nation, scattered and distinctive among the nations of the empire, keeping their own laws and not the King’s”, does not ring true. Rather, it seems to hint at the famous biblical story of the tower of Babel; where everyone is scattered because the common language unites them for evil rather than good.

The antipathy of Haman to Jews sounds a lot like later tension between Jews and Greeks after Alexander the Great defeated the Persians. For the next 200 years Greek and Jew regularly clashed as they competed in the huge open economy of the empire. Judah Maccabee had to march in several campaigns to rescue Jews under siege from Greek competitors or to avenge Jews massacred in Greek cities.

All this points to the Megillah being a warning against assimilation. The dangers and options are there. The Talmud discusses what Esther ate in the palace — treifah food, pork no less, supervised kosher or vegetarian? That too sounds very current.

The message is that the only way to survive against your enemies is by remaining loyal to your traditions and working together to overcome adversity. Jews will always be different but one can make a virtue out of difference. Purim is the festival of the diaspora par excellence, a warning against the perils of exile. Yet rather like the prophet’s famous exhortation (Jeremiah 29) to go into Babylon, settle there and build houses, the story implies that integration, even intermarriage, is one way to have people in high places to ensure the Jewish people survive. The heroine in a way is a pre-pop Amy Winehouse.

The mystical tradition as always has its own glosses. Esther means “hidden” in Hebrew just as God is hidden in our world. Some of us experience God, others fail to. The name is not mentioned at all in the Megillah. Is this intentional? He may appear in the form of “The King” or the Ten Sefirot, disguised as the Ten Sons of Haman. The seven messengers, the seven advisors, the seven maidens and Esther’s crowning in the seventh year all hint at God’s control over creation and our universe.

The three days of fasting are the three days of preparation for the Mount Sinai revelation. The battle with Haman is the battle with Amalek who attacked the Jews coming out of Egypt from behind. Haman is described as the Agagite. Agag was the Amalekite king whom Saul defeated and Samuel killed. Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin, as was Mordecai.

My favourite piece of rabbinic tradition is the idea that Purim is not a post-biblical afterthought but the very summit of Jewish religious expression. Yom Kippurim, the holiest day of the year, is a Yom K’Purim, a Day like Purim. It is the only festival we will need to celebrate after the Messiah comes, because then we will all see God everywhere, in every action and event, instead of “hidden” as at the moment. If the function of festivals is to get us to experience God in our lives, then what need will they serve if we can achieve this without the aid of ritual? Only Purim will remain to remind us of what we needed once. I cannot think of anything more liberating than the idea that joy and fun should be the ultimate expression of Jewish spirituality.

Rabbi Rosen blogs at www.jeremyrosen.com

Last updated: 6:12pm, April 1 2009