Chag Purim Sameach – Happy Purim; I hope you enjoy the festival with us in our community, or wherever you are. I have a love-hate relationship with the day.
I both love and hate the Megillah, the story itself. I love reading it. Beneath the seeming surface of palace furnishings, drinking parties, bath-oil recipes for how to be most popular at the harem, the drawing of lots, the sending of letters, royal horses, and the ancient world’s equivalent of phone-tapping, the Megillah is among the sharpest and shrewdest accounts of Realpolitik in that sharp and shrewd anthology which constitutes the Bible. Think how the king manages, or fails to manage, the insecurity of ruling 127 provinces whose languages he cannot possibly understand. Consider how Haman, himself a survivor in a tiny minority group, so inwardly uncertain beneath his arrogance that he tells his wife how many children they have, manipulates those royal anxieties: ‘those Jews, they’re everywhere; they have their own laws; they don’t care about yours; they’re a danger; get rid of them.’ It’s the first example of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in literature. Then ponder how Esther plays even more astutely upon those same insecurities by inviting Haman to her parties, leaving the sleepless king wondering just what may be going those two which he ought to know about.
But I hate the harshness of this politics, the Darwinian survival of the most cunning, the violence, the sense that this is only one turn of the screw, that whoever ends up winning this round may well lose the next. Surviving is always a provisional matter; the problems are bound to resurface, sometimes with us as the victims, sometimes with others. And in this cruel world God is ex machina, palpably, seemingly absent…It’s the year’s most troubling festival.
However I love the Purim customs. We celebrate in four ways (besides hearing the Megillah evening and morning).
Firstly we give to the poor. Two gifts to at least two poor, rules the Shulchhan Aruch, basing itself on the text in the Megillah which instructs us to give mattanot la’evtonim, gifts (plural) to the poor (plural). One tradition is to give half units of currency, in memory of the half shekel for theTemple; but the greater the generosity the better. In Austria they used to give half a Wiener, so my colleague Rabbi Chaim of that name should not celebrate in Vienna. One may give to whom one chooses.
Secondly we share gifts of food, mishloach manot ish lere’ehu, ‘the sending of portions, each to their fellow’. Parcels should therefore include at least two kinds of food. One may give to whom one wishes, though the Shulchan Aruch notes that one should be careful with single women lest it the gift be seen as a bridal present and one is held to have married the recipient.
Thirdly, we eat and drink, the latter, rules the Shulchan Aruch, until we don’t know the difference between ‘blessed is Mordechai’ and ‘cursed is Haman’. This was too much for Rabbi Moses Isserles, who recommended instead that one drink until one falls asleep, at which point one knows the difference between nothing and nothing anyway.
Finally, we dress up. ‘It’s an upside down world’, says the Megillah, ‘nahaphoch hu’, and on this day we may be whoever we choose. Don’t we play roles in life anyway? Aren’t we pushed into them by the politics of society all the time? By the way, if you haven’t worked out your disguise yet, then you’re in the same boat as I am. I’m going to stare at Nicky’s hat boxes, the children’s toys, the dog’s tray, and see if there is anything vaguely unusual I can stick over my head.