The Jewish holiday of Purim begins Saturday night and it's a serious party. Imagine a more socially responsible Mardi Gras and you begin to get the picture. Costumes, food, drinking -- yes, that kind and lots of it -- are all part of the tradition. And so is remembering our own vulnerability, a lesson in how to raise ourselves out of it, and the obligation to give others a hand in doing so also.
Basically, Purim is a four-part exercise is having a great time, reconnecting with friends, celebrating the past and helping to make a better future. If that isn't a great holiday, I don't know what is. So here's the deal.
There are four basic traditions of Purim. First is reading the Megillah, the biblical Book of Esther. It's a great story filled with sex, political intrigue, good guys and bad buys, the whole deal. It's also the only biblical book in which the name of God is never mentioned, not even once.
Leaving out God, allows the human characters in the story to really step up and discover their own inner strength. So this first Purim practice invites us all to ask how often we lose sight of our own inner strength and how often our faith becomes an excuse for avoiding it. Don't get me wrong, I am all for God, but not God as a crutch or an excuse.
The second Purim tradition is giving gifts to the poor -- traditionally the minimum is a gift of at least one coin to two different people. In fact, the tradition on Purim is to give to whoever asks, regardless of whom they are or what we think of them and/or their needs.
I appreciate that none of us (well almost none) is so rich as to be able to give indiscriminately all of the time, but once a year it's pretty good to allow ourselves to feel so overflowing with both capacity and generosity that we do so. It's not so bad for the needy either!
Next is the practice of giving food gifts to friends and neighbors -- at least two foods to one person. The food must be ready-to-eat, probably because it was a way for people to help their friends cater the festive meal which is the fourth Purim tradition.
Unlike the gifts to the poor which invite us not only to notice those in need, this tradition based on words found in the Book of Esther, invite us to give to our peers, our friends and neighbors. This is about building bonds of connection and community, without which none of us can live fully.
Our friends may not even need the food. In fact, starting Sunday, I expect our home to be overflowing with more candy, cookies and other stuff than we could possibly finish any time soon, let alone on Purim. But the gifts are a way of connecting, of reminding those about whom we care (not mention ourselves), that we give to them not necessarily because they need it, but because we love them.
Finally, the fourth and final Purim practice, the festive meal. And yes, there will be plenty of drinking. How much? According to the Talmud, one should drink enough that they find themselves unable to distinguish between Mordechai (the male hero of the story) and Haman (the ultimate bad guy in the same story).
There are many ways to understand what this tradition is all about, but I like to think of it as the perfect blending of our acknowledgment that all things are not equal in this world, there is good and there is evil. At the same time, we have within ourselves the ability to fill up that space of hate which lies between them, with joy and with love. And in doing so, we remember that the two are never as different as we often like to tell ourselves.
There's an old teaching that tells us when the wine goes in, the secrets come out. Perhaps the secret of that kind of boundless joy and love is what we hope to discover on Purim. At the very least, the holiday provides a simple four-part process to discover the best in ourselves and in each other.
Purim invites us to celebrate with abandon without abandoning our awareness of those in need. It reminds us that the space to do that is always there, and that when we fill it with acts like those that define Purim, it's a blast.