03/06/2012 10:57 am ET Updated May 06, 2012

Seriously Celebrating

Wouldn't it be odd to take Purim seriously?

After all, this is a holiday on which one is commanded to be blisteringly happy, so jubilant that one is liable to make a fool out of oneself. Whether socially lubricated or not, one is still called on to become so blissfully joyous that one cannot discern the difference between cursing the enemy and blessing the hero. Halacha (Jewish law) obligates one to attend parties. Most people observe Purim by wearing costumes, going to carnivals and eating triangularly shaped baked goods. This is not the "solemn day of convocation" of our great-great-great-great-great (etc.) grandparents.

However, Purim is a day of celebration that takes itself seriously, that recognizes the radical power of joy.

The climax of the Purim story occurs when "the opposite happened," (Esther 9:1), when the genocidal decree against the Jewish people was overturned, and their time of fear became a time of celebration. This moment possesses its radical power due precisely to the intensity of the potential catastrophe that almost befell the people. The dialectical logic of the reversal teaches us that Purim's euphoric joy correlates to the depth of its profundity. The rubber band snaps back hardest when it is stretched to its breaking point. The Jewish people had to approach the very precipice of existence to be able to touch the ecstatic joy of life. Purim is this coincidence of extremes.

The celebrating and rejoicing of Purim does not arise through mere happenstance. To rejoice on Purim is actually something that G-d commands. One does not merely become happy; one has to mean it. The joy one experiences is the joy that one is meant to be experiencing. However, the heights of our joy do not pierce the atmosphere of the holy life Judaism provides. Just because something is silly or ridiculous does not mean that it cannot also be holy. Taking Purim seriously is the commitment to take the contours of our lives seriously, even its extremes, perhaps especially in such cases.

There is an especially Purim-esque irony to the fact that it is precisely on the wackiest day of the Jewish year that possesses the most mitzvot (commandments) devoted to giving to others -- specifically, to give money to the poor, send gifts to friends and share in each others' festive meals. The celebration one experiences on Purim is not egotistical self-indulgence. Rather, one must be full of so much joy that one cannot help but give to others. One simply overflows. The great medieval scholars Maimonides and R' Joseph Karo agree that when one gives to others on Purim, one should not keep track of how much one distributes, but should simply give (MT Laws of Megillah 2:16, SA OH 294:2). The early modern Jewish legal commentator R' Jacob Moelin (Maharil) even says that the very first thing one does as the holiday begins is to give (SA OH 294:1).

Mordechai's triumph is sealed when he goes out into the city, and the Jews react with exultation and joy (Esther 9:15-16). Redemption was sealed only when he went out. Our joy on Purim must also be directed radially outward, radically toward others. Our happiness must brim over into generosity, forcing us beyond ourselves. This cannot merely be a theoretical discussion. The ecstasy of Purim must jar us beyond our comfort zone, push us to take our own Torah out into "every province and every city..." (Esther 9:17), helping to bring about a world of redemption.

This column is a part of 'Ve-Nahafoch Hu: Making Your Way Through an Upside-Down World,' a social justice Purim Supplement published by Uri L'Tzedek. Ve-Nahafoch Hu ("and the opposite occurred," Esther 9:1) is when the Jews of Shushan were saved at the last moment, resulting in a day of celebrations and expressions of gratitude. But Purim is not only a day of feasting and merrymaking; it is so much more. The Book of Esther as well as its mitzvot (commandments) and minhagim (customs) touch on many of the compelling issues of our time including the death penalty, consumerism, theories of ethics and responsibility, alcoholism, poverty and economic injustice, structures of political organization, and taxes. The conversations are brought together in Ve-Nahafoch Hu, which can be downloaded here.