As a parent how can you not love Purim? Choosing costumes, the breathless anticipation until a day or two before the holiday, when children pop up as little Queen Esthers and King Ahasueruses, pirates and princesses, ballet dancers, hassidim and policemen.
The colors, the preening, the pride of the mothers, the smiles of the fathers, all paint our streets in joyful innocence.
There is a but. Possibly because parents wish to join their children at their own level – or maybe relive their own childhood – Purim has changed in the eyes and ears of many of us. Some synagogues have descended into obsessive costuming of the adults, and endless, nerve-racking, eardrum-bursting noise.
Celebration becomes bedlam. The reading and hearing the text gets lost in that unbridled frenzy.
One man’s solution was to avoid having to observe Purim. He’d be in Jerusalem when Purim was celebrated in Tel Aviv. That evening he’d go to Tel Aviv so as not to be in Jerusalem on Shushan Purim.
Regarding Shushan Purim: a question to you dear reader. When you were taught about the delayed Purim in walled cities, did you also call it Shoeshine Purim? Or is that just a Toronto phenomenon? The Megila of Esther is the only book in the Bible where God’s name does not appear. When Mordecai tells Esther about Haman’s plot to commit genocide against all the Jews of the Persian Empire, he says, “if you remain silent at such a time, relief and deliverance will arise to the Jews from another place.” The word “place” (Makom) is interpreted by some to refer to God, since Makom is one of the words used later as a synonym for his name. The absence of God’s name lends strength to the theory that this was a secular novella-like tale.
If there are people who believe the book is a secular story, and it is a real cliff-hanger, what would they see as the Purim miracle? The miracle was that the Jews were allowed to bear arms as a group and could fight back against their would-be killers. Take the last words of the Warsaw ghetto commander, Mordechai Anielewicz: The dream of my life has... become fact.... Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts. I have been a witness to the magnificent, heroic fighting of Jewish men in battle.
The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was a desperate message to history. We shall not go to death without arms in our hands, without showing the murderers that we will do battle.
But that analogy is different in one respect. The Jews had a royal sanction act as group to forestall Haman and his genocidal followers.
The classic definition of “state” is that it is a community which has a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. In other words, there can be no competing armies and militias: just one army and one police force, to use modern terminology.
Now in ancient times, as far as we know, all citizens were armed or could bear arms, as individuals. But acting together as a rival to the central power, to the king and his army, would be forbidden. That means that ethnic or religious groups could not operate their own separate militias.
In Persia of the time, the Jewish fighters were acting under a royal warrant.
The right of Jews to fight as a group was unusual, unprecedented. Because of the intervention of Esther and of Mordecai, the king had sanctioned the preemptive Jewish strike against the anti-Semites, putting an end to their genocidal plans throughout the 127 royal provinces.
Some, as we have seen, view the book as a secular story. Some biblical scholars debate when it took place, or if it did really take place. For most of us non-scholars, this is really a beside-the-point debate. Once canonized, the megila became part of our national and cultural identity. That makes it real enough.
To me the book’s last sentence is a great pointer for politicians. “For Mordecai the Jew was... great among the Jews and accepted by most of his brothers...”
Note: by most. After all, what Jewish leader could be accepted by all of his brethren? Or for that matter what leader of any country was or is accepted by all his/her fellow citizens? Think of it when it is read, it will add a chuckle to the bloody denouement.
To return to the cacophonous Purim behavior, the costumed celebration and raucous behavior was introduced into Ashkenazi Jewry in the Middle Ages as a reflection of the Christian Carnival celebrations. The non-Ashkenazi traditions are much more staid. Some congregations would write Haman’s name on the floor and then rub it out every time his name was read out in the megila. Some Sephardi rabbis in Israel even forbade the wearing of costumes, except for little children who would be disappointed if they couldn’t dress up like other kids.
Finally, however we see Purim, whether as a time of celebration of a victory, as a fun holiday in which we can revel and drink, a time when children can frolic in costume and we ourselves become children. Graggering and wiping out Haman’s name – in whatever way we see and celebrate Purim, it is a holiday that coincides with spring.
Therefore, we quote that famous poem, attributed to Ogden Nash by some, and by others to the great and prolific Anonymous: Spring is sprung, the grass is riz./I wonder where the boidies is.
They say the boidies on the wing, but that’s absoid.
I always thought the wing was on the boid.
Here in Israel, the birds are on the wing, the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land, wafted aloft with spring’s flowering fragrances, and for a day or two, nature and man rejoice.
Happy Shoeshine Purim, Jerusalem! Known to his friends as a great optimist, and by his critics as a great critic, Avraham Avi-hai – writer, academic, and public servant – asks friends and enemies alike to remove the word “great” from their depictions. He asks them to do so, out of respect to his great modesty.