Purim, Joy in the darkness

tradional food for Purim

Purim is the Jewish Festival, also known as a ‘Carnival of Happiness’ and it begins this evening (March 6th) until tomorrow evening (March 7th.)

It is based on the event in the Book of Esther and to understand it fully, a reading of that book would help you. There are only 10 chapters, none of them very long.It is set in the Persian Empire in the 4th century BCE. The Empire extended over 127 lands and Jewish people were spread across most of it.

The story goes that when King Achashverosh was disobeyed by his wife, Queen Vashti, he decided to replace her. He ordered that the beautiful girls of the Empire should parade before him. The new Queen he chose was Esther but she was a Jew so she had to hide her nationality.
At this time, the new Prime Minister of the Empire, Haman, began to exercise his power. All in the land bowed to him by order, except the Jewish Leader Mordechai. (He was the guardian of the new Queen, Esther but this wasn’t known.)
Haman was so furious and angry with Mordechai that he persuaded the King, on some pretence, to have all Jews in the Empire destroyed.He cast lots to decide the date and this became the origin of the feast because Purim means ‘lots’ in ancient Persian. (They cast lots)
In the face of widespread  destruction,  Mordechai persuaded Queen Esther to enlist the aid of the King.
It transpired that Mordechia   had already been influential in foiling a plot against the King by two rebels. So the King wanted to reward, rather than kill Mordechia. Esther told him to gather all the Jews in the city of Shushan, where the Royal Palace was, and spend three days together, repenting, fasting and praying to God. Then Esther invited the King and Hanam to a feast. During the festivities, she revealed that she was a Jew and accused Hanam of attempting to destroy her people. Mordechia was feted by the King and Hanam was hung on gallows he had built to get rid of Mordechia.
He was appointed Prime Minister in place of Hanam.

It’s a marvellous story and you can ‘read all about it’ in the Book of Esther.

Purim is the Festival at which the Jewish People celebrate this and they do it particularly in 4 ways.

  • The reading of the Book of Esther (the Megillah), once on the night of Purim and once the following day.
  • By giving money gifts to at least two poor people.
  • Sending gifts of two kinds of ready-to eat-foods to at least one person (who may be in need)
  • And to have a festive meal

The atmosphere is lively and full of fun. It is customary for children especially (but adults also if they desire) to dress up in costumes. This is because the role of God is hidden in the story of Purim (and in fact even the name of God is missing from the Megillah).’

There are special foods including a three-cornered pastry stuffed with sweetmeats and poppy seeds. It is called Hamantaschen after Haman’s favourite three-cornered hat though in Yiddish,it is called ‘Haman’s ears
Central to the feast is Joy. It is based on deliverance from death and evil intent and that is something to be joyful about.

The late Jonathan Sachs pondered on this. They had escaped an act of genoside, the first one of more to come. Was the appropriate emotion joy? Ought it to have been relief? How does this festivity sit with future persecutions of the Jewish people? How does Purim  seem against the background of the holocaust? This is what Jonathan Sacks has to say:

“We who live after the Holocaust, who have met survivors, heard their testimony, seen the photographs and documentaries and memorials, know the answer to that question. On Purim, the Final Solution was averted. But it had been pronounced. Ever afterward, Jews knew their vulnerability. The very existence of Purim in our historical memory is traumatic.
The Jewish response to trauma is counter-intuitive and extraordinary. You defeat fear by joy. You conquer terror by collective celebration. You prepare a festive meal, invite guests, give gifts to friends. While the story is being told, you make an unruly noise as if not only to blot out the memory but to make a joke out of the whole episode. You wear masks. You drink a little too much. You make a Purim spiel.
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. As the three-sentence summary of Jewish history puts it: “They tried to destroy us. We survived. Let’s eat.”

Humour is the Jewish way of defeating hate. What you can laugh at, you cannot be held captive by.”

In our present world, where so much tragedy is befalling so many people, in Ukraine, Turkey, Syria, even the Holy Land, and so many other places, perhaps there is a vital message here for all of us.

Jonathan Sacks again:

How do joy and humour help us deal with tragedies, both in our personal and national life?

I learned this from a Holocaust survivor. Some years ago, I wrote a book called Celebrating Life. It was a cheer-you-up book, and it became a favourite of the Holocaust survivors. One of them, however, told me that a particular passage in the book was incorrect. Commenting on Roberto Begnini’s comedy film about the Holocaust, Life is Beautiful, I had said that though I agreed with his thesis – a sense of humour keeps you sane – that was not enough in Auschwitz to keep you alive.

“On that, you are wrong,” the survivor said, and then told me his story. He had been in Auschwitz, and he soon realised that if he failed to keep his spirits up, he would die. So he made a pact with another young man, that they would both look out, each day, for some occurrence they found amusing. At the end of each day they would tell one another their story and they would laugh together. “That sense of humour saved my life,” he said. I stood corrected. He was right.

How can humour be the ultimate defence against those who wish to take away our freedom and destroy us?
That is what we do on Purim. The joy, the merrymaking, the food, the drink, the whole carnival atmosphere, are there to allow us to live with the risks of being a Jew – in the past, and tragically in the present also – without being terrified, traumatised or intimidated. It is the most counter-intuitive response to terror, and the most effective. Terrorists aim to terrify. To be a Jew is to refuse to be terrified.

A people that can know the full darkness of history and yet rejoice is a people whose spirit no power on Earth can ever break.

Terror, hatred, and violence are always ultimately self-destructive. Those who use these tactics are always, as was Haman, destroyed by their very will to destruct. And yes, we as Jews must fight antisemitism, the demonisation of Israel, and the intimidation of Jewish students on campus. But we must never let ourselves be intimidated – and the Jewish way to avoid this is marbim be-simcha, to increase our joy. A people that can know the full darkness of history and yet rejoice is a people whose spirit no power on Earth can ever break.”

There is so much about this that we can learn to good and powerful effect. It touches so much on the events in our world today. It is also central to the Christian Lent and Holy Week journey . There, too, joy comes out of seeming destruction and yet love triumphs  through Cross & Resurrection which is itself the epitome of joy, deliverance and celebration. It reminds us that by whatever religion we pray to God,  the joke is always on Satan and those who follow evil.

[Mr G]

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