Purim is the joker in the pack of Jewish festivals. It is the closest we get to carnival, with the fancy dress, the mayhem of the megillah reading, the alcohol – it’s a mitzvah to get tipsy if not paralytic – and the Purim spiels.
But there is a darker current beneath the merriment. It is the commemoration of thwarted genocide of a diaspora community. And though written more than 2,000 years ago, Haman’s words as he justifies his lethal plot retain their chilling ring. “There is a certain people,” he tells the king, “scattered and separate from the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom, and their rules are different from every people’s….”
The Jews are the irredeemable Other, a people apart, a law unto themselves, good only for extinction. For some, Purim represents the archetypal story of the situation of the Jews, ever threatened by an enduring enmity that travels through history in different guises. We can never rest in comfort for even when we feel as if we have never had it so good, the danger remains.
So the persistence of ansemitism, however depressing, can appear as part of some kind of metaphysical order – or rather disorder – that we must cope with as best we can until messianic days. The old midrashic adage “Esau hates Jacob” describes the world as it is and the only people we can really trust are ourselves.
But the radical message of Purim is actually that hatred can be confronted and overcome (even if the methods – slaughtering our enemies – would not be approved by the Metropolitan Police). The Jews of the Megillat Esther emerge from their ordeal in a stronger position, remaining in their diaspora homes. There is no talk of any return to Zion.
Esther and Mordecai command their people to remember the events of Purim “in every generation” for all time. But the commemoration marks the month that was “turned for them from sorrow to joy and from mourning to holiday”. You can drink to drown out your sorrow or your fears. But Purim indulgence is a toast to hope. L’chaim.