Faith Brigham Leener is a Base (through Hillel's Office of Innovation) co-Founder, and she serves as Director of Base as well as Senior Educator of Base BKLYN.
Purim is my favorite Jewish holiday. But probably not for the reasons you might expect. Having grown up as a secular Jew, as a child I understood Purim as the “Jewish Halloween”, a time for dress up and play, levity, and delight - a communal celebration enacted through carnivals and the delivering of mishloach manot (food packages). If I’m being honest, I never really took it seriously. It didn’t seem to hold the weight of Yom Kippur or the ritual of Passover.
As I began a long journey of self-discovery through the lens of Judaism, most notably by taking a year to live in Israel and study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies at age 22, a new world of Purim broke open for me.
Purim is the most important spiritual holiday that modern Jews can learn from.
I believe we must not only imbibe spirits together, but we must also tap into the spirit of Purim and the lessons it has to offer us.
So, what is the hiddush (novel wisdom) of Purim? What can this holiday mean to us?
The historical narrative we read in the Megillah tells us an odd story about the Jews of Persia escaping massacre through the advocacy and spiritual leadership of Queen Esther (a Jewess that was abducted for her beauty and brought to King Ahaserus’s castle against her will).
God (however one might understand this word: from creative force to Hashem) is either completely absent in this story or, as Esther’s name might imply, hidden (“hester” in Hebrew). The word Purim literally means “lots” which echoes this absence and suggests a sense of randomness to the entire story.
This I believe is the first lesson of Purim: God, the creator, the changer of destiny, works through human beings. God is not a distant player, or an abstract concept. What may appear random is in fact, not. We have the potential to be partners in creation and shaping our destiny if we choose to accept the call to action when it comes. This is precisely what Esther did when her uncle Mordechai urges her to speak to the King on behalf of the Jewish people, to reveal her Jewish lineage and beg for the King’s protection of her people. Not only does she agree to solicit the King’s favor, risking her own life, but she demands that the Jewish people come together in unity, to fast and to pray for three days prior.
In this, we learn the second lesson of Purim. Esther sees her actions as both critically important, and reliant on communal support. Like Esther, we must hear and answer the call when we are in a specific situation to advocate for what is right, and we must not forget that we are not alone in this fight. We must find ways to receive support when it is our time to lead. In a world of countless issues to tackle—climate change, racism, increasing wealth disparity, and existential feelings of loneliness and despair--we must ask ourselves: Where am I positioned to meaningfully and impactfully advocate for causes or exhibit spiritual leadership, and when must I find someone else who is positioned to do so and give them my support?
Another element of Purim that I used to find confusing is the emphasis on the physical: the drinking, the costumes, the masks, the feasts. Isn’t Judaism (and religion in general) about deep inquiry and cerebral exploration of shared values? Isn’t that what we do in synagogue, in the beit midrash (house of learning), or at the seder table? While we do read the megillah scroll on Purim, even that is interrupted by noisy groggers (noise makers). How are we supposed to take the Megillah or Purim seriously when we’re dressed up in silly costumes, wearing masks, and behaving “like children”?
In this paradox are the irony and poignant nature of Purim. Purim is a reminder that every day we wear masks. Every day we play different parts and roles, some we are aware of, and some we’d rather not choose to see. Every day we pretend that we’re so different from our inner child who is still experiencing and re-enacting childhood fantasies and traumas as an adult. But the truth is, our inner children are still inside of us, and every day we have a choice of what masks we will put on or not. Purim sheds light on this reality and instead of invoking shame, it gives us permission to honor those roles, play with them, and make choices about what roles we want to hold onto and what masks we want to let go of. It gives us permission to make the physical holy. To make food baskets for our friends or those in need as equally profound and important as the other mitzvot. Purim reminds us that we have real bodies and real emotions, and instead of running away from them, we can join with others in acknowledging them.
Finally, there is a unique law in the approach to how we observe Purim. The Talmud (Taanit 29a) states, Mishe-nichnas Adar marbim be-simcha: “From the beginning of Adar, we increase in joy.” This is based on the passage in the Megillah (Esther 9:21-22) in which Mordechai sends a letter throughout the land instructing Jews
“to observe the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and the fifteenth day, every year – the days on which the Jews obtained rest from their enemies and the month which for them was turned from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday.”
Basically, we are to observe Purim through a state of joy - as we prepare festive meals, invite guests, give gifts to friends, wear over the top costumes, and drink until we do not know the difference between Mordechai and Haman. As Rabbi Sacks describes this in his essay entitled The Therapeutic Joy of Purim,
“The Jewish response to trauma is counterintuitive and extraordinary. You defeat fear by joy. You conquer terror by collective celebration... Precisely because the threat was so serious, you refuse to be serious – and in that refusal you are doing something very serious indeed. You are denying your enemies a victory. You are declaring that you will not be intimidated. As the date of the scheduled destruction approaches, you surround yourself with the single most effective antidote to fear: joy in life itself.”
Today this message, of embodying joy in the face of terror or the unknown fate that lies ahead, feels just as bold and just as needed. Life can feel random and out of control, and in many ways, it is. But we have the opportunity, if we chose to seize it, to play an important role in shaping our destiny. And in trauma, loss, or fear, joy is also a choice available. A joy which is not a negation of pain, but an honoring of the full-bodied reality in which we live. We feel pain because we once loved. We feel fear because we have found purpose in living.
May we all be blessed this Purim to imbibe these holy hidden lessons, into our lives and into our work.