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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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Purim forever

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Rachael Turkienicz

The holiday of Purim is one of the most joyous and mysterious holidays in our calendar. Certainly we all remember the story of being victorious over the evil Haman who plotted to eradicate the Jewish people. The hero, Esther, and her uncle, Mordechai, represent complex Jewish portraits of transformation.

It is customary to dress in costumes, drink excessively, feast, give treats to each other and give charity to the poor. Of course, we listen to the reading of the Megillah and we boo and stomp to eradicate the sound and memory of Haman, who is considered part of Amalek.

In short, we are partying, engaged in ritual, drinking, booing and hissing, eating and delivering treats. Indeed, we celebrate this holiday in a very unique Jewish style.

In fact, the story itself has already put us into a mood of confusion and disorientation. When the sages tell us that our goal is to not know the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai,” it’s because the story itself moves them in and out of each other’s shoes. Mordechai is deserving of a promotion for saving the king’s life, but it’s Haman who gets the promotion. The king plans a reward for Mordechai and asks Haman for his opinion, and Haman believes the king is referring to him. The king gives his ring to Haman to seal the decree to kill the Jews and later gives his ring to Mordechai to seal the decree to defend the Jews. The topsy-turvy plot unfolds with layers and layers of inversions.

But let’s not forget Esther and the Megillah’s only other woman of significance, Vashti. Once again, the text shows us mirrors and inversions. Vashti disappears because she does not come to the king when she’s summoned, whereas Esther’s danger is that she will visit the king when she’s not summoned. Vashti is hosting a feasting party for the women at the start of the book, while we read that Esther is fasting and her maidens are likewise fasting with her.

The ridiculousness of the royal antics reach their climax when we realize that all the marital advice is coming from a group called “sarisim,” which translates as eunuchs.

All of this raises the obvious question that we have been asking ourselves for centuries: what are we supposed to make of all of this?

One of the answers can be found in the Megillah itself. It is a literary document, and as with any good literature, it will state its theme near the start and quite clearly. The beginning of the Megillah says that this is the story of this empire that spans from “Hodu to Kush, one hundred and twenty seven provinces.” In other words, this is the story of exile. It’s a story of political intrigue and confusion. It’s a story where you’re never completely sure what will unfold, and one minute the hero of the story is the villain and the popular villain has become the hero. It’s a reality of shaky ground and broken promises. If we forget for a moment what exile is, if we trust it as the answer, we’re doomed, and it will devour us.

We celebrate this knowledge and we defend ourselves with education (by reading the Megillah) and strengthening our community (sending treats). The key to Jewish survival is our ability to navigate the world around us as we bring the values of Torah into the world and not isolate ourselves from it.

This might be one reason why the sages in the Talmud determined that even after the Messiah comes and we no longer celebrate Jewish holidays, we will nonetheless celebrate Purim forever.

Rachael Turkienicz is director of Rachaelscentre.org.

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