The puzzle of Purim is upon us. Is it funny, or frightening? A story of triumph? Or does it end with an act of terror, and a terrible mistake?
Let’s start with Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther.
According to the Megillah, the events of Purim invented the Megillah. According to modern linguists and historians, the Megillah invented the events of Purim. It’s not history, it’s a satire on pompous kings and genocidal rulers. The Megillah itself was a farcical tale -- the first “Purimspiel” -- that went along with the craziness of early spring, when even the trees dress their bare nakedness in costumes of green, and many spiritual and religious communities celebrate with bawdy ridicule.
There is even a tip-off in the tale itself: it says that if we check in the archives of the kings of Persia, we will find the whole story. But we can check in the archives of the Kings of Persia, and there’s no such story. The Megillah itself is a joke; in fact it’s two jokes, and they are the same joke.
It’s a classic joke: “hoist on your own petard,” or “slip on your own banana peel.” That’s the double joke. The king starts the whole story in motion by insisting that no woman is ever going to tell him what to do. He brings about the story that ends with him doing exactly what Esther tells him to do. The anti-anti-feminism joke.
A bloodier version of the same joke: Haman gets the second plot of the story going by planning a genocide of the Jews and the hanging of Mordecai in particular. He ends up being hanged on the gallows he intended for Mordecai, and with the death of 75,000 Persians at the hands of the Jews. The anti-antisemitism joke.
It is a great story for a people that has no power and can laugh and revel in a story where power is so stupid that it turns its own power into an alcoholic stupor.
But if the people of Purim become powerful, the story becomes dangerous. On Purim morning in 1994, a Jewish man thought he was blessed because he was named “Baruch” but became “Aror, Accursed,” by killing 29 Muslims prostrate in prayer at the tomb of Abraham, the legendary ancestor of both the Jews and the Arabs, of both Judaism and Islam.
Jewish tradition teaches that on Purim we should know the mystical identity of two seemingly utterly disparate statements: “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Accursed is Haman.” In Hebrew, the two phrases have the same arithmetical value, but the identity goes even deeper than gematria. How were they identical? Both assumed a story of Power-above and Courage-below. If you are caught in that story, both the defeat of the Power-hungry and the victory of those who birth courage from their own terror may turn to ashes in your mouth. Best to make sure you never get caught in the story, never get caught in cruelty masking as pomposity. Use the power of laughter -- Saturday Night Live or the late-night stand-up comics -- to hustle away a would-be Ahasuerus or Haman. If laughter fails, we may need the civil disobedience of Esther, or even the plagues of Pharaoh, a month later.
The rabbinic tradition assumes that to get to that place of deep unity we need to drink some alcohol or smoke some dope. Little did the rabbis imagine that a Jew with the power to murder could confound “baruch” and “aror” in himself or in us all, by pouring out blood.
Or perhaps they did recognize the possibility, and tried to forfend it. Today, this very day, in rabbinic tradition, is the Fast of Esther – the 13th of Adar, the day before Purim. Why impose a fast in the midst of what the rabbis hoped would be hilarity?
There’s a history. In the midst of the Maccabeean war against a tyrannical empire and a “modernizing” Jewish community, a Syrian general named Nicanor was defeated.
(A detour to explain the history: The Maccabeean war was actually partly anti-imperialist and partly a civil war, Maccabees and their more traditional followers vs Jews who thought Hellenization was fine – call them “modernizers” or “assimilationists,” depending on your own views. Interestingly, the rabbis were uncomfortable with the Maccabees -- not wanting to encourage military uprisings, especially because of the mass enslavement of Jews after the Bar Kochba revolt. Yom Nicanor wasn’t the only thing that got erased. The Books of the Maccabees were rejected from the Tanakh, survived only in Greek (another joke of Purim) and were treated as holy only by Christians. The Talmud on Hanukkah, the premier Maccabeean festival, begins, “Mah zot Hanukkah,” “What is this Hanukkah, anyway?” and then focuses away from the revolt in favor of the miracle of the Menorah oil.)
Back to that day: –- The 13th of Adar became Yom Nicanor, a day of celebrating a military victory. By proclaiming the Fast of Esther, the rabbis shattered Yom Nicanor. They tried hard to prevent Baruch/Aror Goldstein. They failed, and today and even tomorrow on Purim itself, we need to contemplate the dangers of becoming so Power-filled that our own violence comes to seem normal.
ON the Fast of Esther one year after the massacre, here in Mt. Airy (Philadelphia) we held a solemn assembly – a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim each spoke about the bloody streaks in his/her/their/our own tradition. Then we celebrated Purim with joy and abandon. The idea didn’t become annual practice. Maybe it still needs to. Having got rid of our own Ahasurus-Haman by laughter and disobedient courage, let us laugh more and party tonight. Freilach Purim!
Shalom, salaam, paz, peace, namaste! -- Arthur