Happy Purim! Last year Purim came just before lockdown; this year it comes just before lockdown – slowly, cautiously, eases and children can go back to school. Let’s hope it heralds a better year ahead.
There’s much not to like about the story of Purim. Without going into details, the scroll of Esther, read last night and this morning, poses as a fairy tale in which, by the grace of God, and heroine vanquish vizier and emperor.
But underneath the service, it’s a shrewd, hard-bitten account of insecurity, suppression and manipulation. There are plenty of places still like that in the world. The meme for survival is ‘How do I use people more deftly than they use me.’ There is no more astutely political text in the Bible.
But that’s not what we take away from the festival. On the thin ice of perilous existence, we dance, feast, give gifts and care for the poor. We mock tyranny, take the mickey out of pomp and laugh at life’s absurdity. We create joy.
That’s why tradition connects Purim with Yom KiPurim. On the latter we recognise how transient we are; we fast, repent and take stock of our soul. On the former we recognise how fragile we are; so we eat, drink and make the most of our moment. Carpe diem – seize the day. Mir seinen da! We’re here; let’s make the best of it. Lechaim, Lechaim! To life!
I admire this attitude; there’s courage as well as joy in laughter. It’s one of the great forms of resilience. It’s the underdog’s greatest weapons. It undercuts pride and pretence. It strengthens the spirit. I love the wit and grit of good humour, and appreciate those who have it and share it.
I love, too, the way joy connects us. Sometimes it’s thought that only sad events truly unite us. That’s simply untrue. Even though it was all on Zoom this year, watching a community in fancy dress, with floating hats and virtual moustaches, laughing together, then taking small gifts of foods to their friends (yes, wearing masks, leaving them on doorsteps and stepping away two metres) and knowing that we’ll all support the work of Feast and Leket (see below) making meals for anyone in hungry in these hard times – I feel like weeping with gratitude for being a part of it all.
That’s the lesson which emerges from the old story of intrigue and power (which still plagues the world in its versatile forms): when you get the chance, take life with a laugh, care for your friends and be there for those who need. For the long-standing tasks will soon call us back, to remove oppression and transform the world – and to do that we need all the joy and spirit we can muster.
Let me set down in couplets the key laws of Purim
Just as you’ll find them in the old Arba Turim.
You must read the Megillah when the sun’s gone away,
Then listen to it all over, early next day.
You must boo when it’s Haman, but as we’re on zoom
Please mute your computer before you go boom.
You may stuff your face full and it’s not seen as greedy,
So long as you offer two gifts to two needy
And regale with delicacies one friend at least,
Before you sit down to an unhealthy feast.
You mustn’t stay sombre or too circumspect,
Politically, now’s the moment to be incorrect.
You’re encouraged to dress as king, queen or clown,
To show that you know that the world’s upside down.