03/05/2012 12:41 pm ET Updated May 05, 2012

Purim: War or Spring Fever?

Purim, the Jewish festival of topsy-turvy and spring fever, begins Wednesday evening (March 7). Is it also a festival of war and massacre? Can it -- this very week -- feed a thirst for fear and rage, revenge and war? The story of Purim is a tale about a Persian government's threats against Jews, and a bloody revenge the Jews take. Persia today is called Iran.

Immediately preceding Purim is the Fast of Esther, from sunrise to sunset this Wednesday. Though today few Jews observe the Fast, its teaching may be as important as the teaching of Purim itself -- and later in this letter, I will examine what it means. Together, they make Purim the most complex and self-contradictory of all the festivals -- the deepest in teaching the inner contradictions of our world.

Woven into Purim is a story about Persia, which today is called Iran. It is clearly a made-up story, not history --- a parody on power, a hilarious poking-fun at domineering arrogance. Yet it is often misunderstood by many Jews as factual history, and in our generation that misunderstanding can turn the meaning of the story upside down. Topsy-turvy.

One aspect of the story is about the threat of a Persian leader to obliterate the Jews, and it ends with the Jews killing 75,000 Persians. In 1994, on Purim, a Jew named Baruch ["Blessed"] Goldstein mislearned the story so thoroughly that to carry out its denoument, he murdered 29 Muslims prostrate in prayer at the Tomb of Abraham.

It is an ill omen that this very week, the week of Purim, the prime minister of a Jewish state is coming to pressure an American president to permit Israel to make war against these modern "Persians," whose leaders have spoken deep hostility against that Jewish state.

The rationale for such a war is that Iran may be seeking to make nuclear weapons, even though its government denies any such intent and even though, even if its government is lying, the process of turning nuclear research into a weapon would take years.

During those years, diplomatic efforts, carrots alongside sticks, could try to ensure that neither Israel nor Iran is a threat to its neighbors.

But on its surface, the Scroll of Esther seems to glorify bloody revenge, not the restoration of peace. When Jews had little power in the world, the fantasy of bloody revenge upon enemies was perhaps a release from fear and rage. But in an era when Jews have very great power, it is deeply dangerous to take the story's tale of revenge as a description of what to do.

I am suggesting that the story of Esther should be understood to teach precisely that the overreaching, domineering use of power by anyone will bring disaster on the dominator's head.

The entire teaching of the Scroll is the telling of two jokes with the same structure. In Joke 1, an anti-Semitic tyrant, Haman, plots to kill the Jews, and is himself hanged on the gallows he intended for the Jewish leader, Mordechai.

And here's Joke 2: The king begins the story by dethroning his own recalcitrant queen, saying as he does that men must be in charge of the household lest women tell them what to do -- and then ends the story by doing exactly what his new queen, Esther, tells him to do.

Both these threads of the story are a classic joke: the joke of the pratfall comic who tosses a banana peel on the floor and then slips on it -- "hoist by his own petard." Here the joke is applied in a much more serious way to the arrogant in power.

The ancient rabbis who shaped the observance of Purim intensified this upside-down version of what Purim is about. The rabbis taught that one should recognize the deep topsy-turviness and ultimate absurdity of the world by getting so drunk on Purim as not to know the difference between "Blesssed [Baruch] Mordechai" and "Accursed [Aror] Haman." And for centuries Purim has brought with it skits (Purim shpiels) that make fun of rabbis, rulers, even the Torah; masks and costumes, even gender-bending cross-dressing otherwise forbidden.

Even the process of reading aloud the Scroll of Esther teaches the world's absurdity: According to tradition, we are obligated to hear on Purim every word of the reading of the Scroll. Yet we are also commanded to blot out the name of the tyrannical Haman, who is the anti-hero of the story -- and every time his name appears, the whole congregation does indeed make noise that drowns it out.

There is no way to obey both commands. Together they teach that there is something self-contradictory about the world.

And yet -- and yet: Purim is traditionally immediately preceded by the Fast of Esther -- when from sunrise to sunset, one refrains from eating, drinking, sex and other pleasures. This practice precedes the day of hilarious spring fever with a day of inwardness and contemplation.

We can imagine the rabbis affirming the importance of absurdity, but also concerned lest it get out of hand.

Lest it lead to a Baruch Goldstein's getting so drunk on the story of Mordechai's revenge, as to become drunk on blood, not wine. Unable to know the difference in his own soul between being "Baruch, Blessed," and becoming "Aror, Accursed."

Lest it lead to an arrogant ruler initiating a "preventive" war against a hostile Iran -- Persia -- not because of anything it has yet done but out of fear of what it might do if...

Indeed, the Fast of Esther on the day before Purim -- the 13th of Adar -- has a powerfully instructive history. During the Maccabeean uprising against the Empire of Antiocheus, a Syrian-Hellenistic general, Nicanor, was defeated on the 13th of Adar by the Maccabeean guerilla army. To celebrate this military victory, the Jews instituted the festive Nicanor Day on the 13th of Adar.

By turning this day into a fast day, the rabbis shattered this nationalist celebration of a military victory. They tried to teach us to take the contradictions of Purim as a profound meditation on our world, not as an incitement to murder, a permission to kill, an encouragement for war.

And they assigned Isaiah 55:6-56:8 as the prophetic reading for the afternoon of the Fast of Esther. That passage reaches far beyond ethnocentric or nationalist fear, rage and war: "My House," says YHWH [the Interbreathing of all life], "shall be a house of prayer for all peoples."

For several years after Baruch/Aror Goldstein's Purim massacre, some Jews set aside the Fast of Esther as a day when Jews, Christians and Muslims could, in each other's presence, speak honestly about the bloody streaks in the broader fabric of their own traditions. And seek forgiveness from each other.

But in our generation, few Jews observe this Fast of Esther.

Shalom, salaam, healing, wholeness -- Arthur