Purim is a one-day Jewish carnival, a day of over the top revelry. People dress up in costumes. Children spray unsuspecting passers-by with foam. And, according to some authorities, drunken celebration is a requirement.
Why do we drink on Purim? The practice originates with the Talmudic Sage, Rava, who said: a person is obligated to cheer himself with wine (i.e., become inebriated) on Purim, until he does not know the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordekhai” (Megillah 7b).
This required intoxication is surprising given the Jewish tradition’s forceful opposition to drunkenness. In the Biblical stories of Noah (Genesis 9:18-27) and Lot (Genesis 19:29-38), drunkenness leads to forbidden sexual relations. Drinking characterizes the court of the Persian king, Ahashverosh, who is not to be emulated. Moreover, the Talmud advises, “there is nothing that causes a person greater lamentation than wine” (Sanhedrin 70b). All of which makes Rava’s obligation more perplexing.
So, why do we imbibe on Purim? Rabbi Donniel Hartman, lead author of the iEngage Israel curriculum, teaches that drunkenness on Purim is a response to the diaspora condition of powerlessness. Absent autonomy, in tough times our fate rests in the hands of others, ultimately to chance. We cheer ourselves with drink for one day during the year to acknowledge and escape the insanity of a survival that depends upon chance.
What is the basis for this conclusion? The basis for Purim is found in the Book of Esther, which is the paradigmatic diaspora story. Set in the Persian Empire 2,500 years ago, the plot begins with the chance encounter between the powerful Persian courtier, Haman, and the Jew, Mordekhai. Haman is insulted by Mordekhai’s unwillingness to bow down. In retaliation, Haman obtains the King’s consent to exterminate the Jewish people.
How are the Jewish people saved? We Jews had one of our own inside the palace. Queen Esther had won a beauty contest, earning the “right” to join the King’s harem. Ultimately, she exposes Haman’s plot to the King, who does not rescind the order but does permit the Jews to fight back.
The Purim story characterizes diasporic survival as dependent upon chance. Lacking real power, we must rely upon influence and pure luck for our survival. Rabbi Hartman points out: if Esther hadn’t possessed such sex appeal to win the beauty contest, we’d be dead. If Mordekhai hadn’t dressed in sackcloth and cried publicly, piquing Esther’s curiosity and rebuke, we’d be dead. If Esther hadn’t overcome her initial reluctance to advocate on behalf of her people, we’d be dead. If the King had not been enamored with Esther’s beauty and granted her an audience, we’d be dead. If the King hadn’t had a fitful night’s sleep and by chance read in his annals that Mordekhai had thwarted an assassination attempt, we’d be dead.
According to the Book of Esther, diaspora survival depends upon Jewish proximity to power. We might buy access or prostitute the most beautiful girl into the harem, but in the end, our power is only influence, not real power. We are not the ultimate authorities, able to command state resources at will for our protection. In the diaspora, we do not have the full blessing of self-determination.
Ancient Persia, with a state sanctioned order of genocide, is not 21st century America. Nevertheless, we are currently experiencing the greatest spate of anti-Semitism in America my generation has ever known. The awful rise of campus anti-Semitism has been joined by the desecration of multiple Jewish cemeteries and more than 100 bomb threats to JCCs and Jewish day schools. Targeting our children is particularly heinous and disturbing.
What do we do? Judaism has never embraced Matthew’s pacifistic ethic of turn the other cheek. Further, outsourcing our communal protection and self-preservation is not the Jewish ideal. Our tradition teaches the infinite value of human life, including our own lives. We embrace the ethic of self-defense.
Nevertheless, apprehending the source of the bomb threats is beyond our internal capabilities. We continue to employ the traditional approach to threats against our people: to exert influence upon those who pull the levers of power. We call the F.B.I. and the Justice Department to capture these criminals. We call upon elected officials to denounce these acts of anti-Semitism. We applaud the president when he gives top-billing to the threats we face, as in his March 1 address to Congress.
364 days out of the year, we will exert every effort possible to bring an end to the rising anti-Semitism and threats to our community. We will train ourselves in self-defense, implement enhanced security measures, muster state resources, and work to uproot anti-Semitism. But, one evening a year, on Purim, we pour a glass of wine, let our mind wander, and drink to the element of absurdity in our diasporic existence.
The next day we re-read the Book of Esther. We see a different story. We read and draw inspiration from a story of individual acts of bravery, courage and cunning that saved our people. We read (verse 9:5) how foreign leaders and peoples joined with the Jews and helped us defeat our enemy. And we can look forward to Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) when we celebrate that 2017 is not 1944, when we celebrate that, in Israel, we have sovereignty, self-determination and the power to provide for our own self-protection and the responsibility to use it justly.
On March 23 at 7:30 p.m., Congregation Shirat Hayam will present “The Ethical Warrior,” a lecture by Noam Zion. Free and open to all. Call 781-599-8005 to register or for more information.
Rabbi Michael Ragozin is the rabbi at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott.