Purim, observed by Jews this year on March 20, is probably the most confusing of all Jewish holidays.
It's not just the costumes and masks behind which friends are so well hidden that you can't always tell who is who, and not just the parodic upending of hierarchy that is a regular feature of "Purim Spiel" performances and the mock religious lessons known as "Purim Torah." The truly confusing part of Purim is that reversals of this sort are utterly pervasive. In synagogue, Jews chant a book of the Bible (Esther) that seems less sacred history or religious text than dark comedy and political satire. The evil Haman rises to the heights of power and then meets a downfall that is equally swift; fate seems to turn on coincidence, good fortune or sheer chance. God's name is never once mentioned.
One might well ask in wonder: This is a religious holiday? A Jewish religious holiday?! What's going on?
Consider as Exhibit A of the problem -- and perhaps the key to its solution -- a Purim ditty imprinted on my brain from childhood. It is shouted out boisterously in major key, in 4/4 time, in a sing-songy manner that (to me, anyway) smacks of banality and good cheer.
O once there was a wicked, wicked man
And Haman was his name, sir.
He tried to murder all the Jews,
Though they were not to blame, sir.
O today we'll merry, merry be (x3)
And nosh some hamantaschen.
I can still hear myself saying, sometime around bar mitzvah age, "Let me get this straight. One of Persia's most influential courtiers (Haman) persuades the rather feckless King Ahashuerus to allow him and his allies to commit genocide against the Jews. The day for mass murder is chosen by lottery (the meaning of the Hebrew word purim). Haman's plot is foiled at the last minute by a series of amazing and, at times, hilarious coincidences. And Jews forever after memorialize this narrow escape from total destruction by chanting the story to a special melody, making enough noise to drown out every mention of Haman's name, eating and drinking a lot, sending gifts to friends and charity to the poor, making fun of everything and everyone -- and singing silly songs?
There must be more to the holiday than that.
Well into adulthood, I have come to believe that there is more to Purim, a great deal more. (There usually is, when religious observances remain vital after thousands of years.) Purim brings useful perspective to the ups and downs of power and much else that goes on in the world. The holiday cautions us not to take ourselves too seriously and urges us to take moral choices extremely seriously. A key part of its strategy is to get us to laugh at facts of life -- and especially of politics -- that would otherwise make us cry.
The lesson begins, I think, in the paradoxical passage from the Torah (Exodus 25:17-19) that is read in synagogue on the Sabbath preceding Purim. Jews are commanded to "remember ... to blot out the memory of Amalek," the enemy who attacked the weakest stragglers of the Children of Israel without mercy on their way out of Pharaoh's Egypt. Amalek must be remembered -- so as to be forgotten. Jews in every generation must not forget to remember to erase Amalek's memory once and for all.
How can this be done? Surely not by making noise that drowns out every mention of Haman, who (thanks to a story in the book of Samuel) is associated by the Bible with Amalek. The only way to fulfill the commandment to forget, it seems to me, is to change the world so thoroughly that the sort of evil attributed to Amalek becomes utterly inconceivable -- as inconceivable as such a perfected world seems today, when humanity remains under the sway of aggression and terror. As long as "might makes right" it will be difficult to credit the claim that justice will someday be the rule, or virtue find its reward.
Purim comes to reinforce the hope that such a day will come. Jews (and the rest of humanity) will forget Amalek "when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about." That state of affairs may come suddenly, bringing radical change in its wake: the Berlin Wall falls in a day; the Iron Curtain crumbles, seemingly overnight; Mubarak is forced to resign; Haman is hanged on the gallows he had prepared the previous day for Mordecai. More likely, history testifies, change comes step by step, one hard-won reform at a time. The individuals who put their lives on the line, as Esther did, often do not live to see, as Esther did, the outcome for which they sacrifice. The world breaks hearts every day. And yet, we know too, change does come. Lives are saved or improved by our efforts. The direction of things can be reversed.
One important means to that end is denial of authority to "the facts." Today's reality, however overwhelmingly real it seems, may soon be gone, a chimera, material for tomorrow's jokes. Comedy is a useful tool for accomplishing that reversal of fortune. Absolute power, like the power of any absolute, is undermined by every refusal to take it seriously. The Purim story knows (and teaches) when to make fun of things. Haman hates Mordecai so much because Mordecai (and he alone) refuses to bow down before him. Thumbing your nose at power may get you into trouble, but it also may mark the beginning of a tyrant's downfall. The Purim story knows too (and teaches) when to be serious -- as when Mordecai warns Esther not to imagine that she, "of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king's palace. " Perhaps, he suggests, "you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis."
I treasure that "perhaps." Most of us (thank goodness) do not hear clarion voices as Joan of Arc did, sending us (and those who follow us) into battle for this or that cause. More likely, we find ourselves face to face with responsibilities we did not choose or with opportunities to make a difference if we are willing to take great risk and trouble.
We naturally want to know for sure that our action will be crowned with success, but we can't know that. Maybe God or history will prove to be on our side. Maybe, if we fail to act, "help and deliverance will come ... from another place." But maybe not. We can be sure of one thing, though: if no one takes the risk, we are all in trouble.
Purim celebrates the fact that some people do take that chance, when it most counts. Sometimes they -- we -- even win and get to savor our success. Thank goodness. This is ample cause to merry merry be and eat as many hamantaschen as we can wash down with bursts of laughter.