Three feet of snow blankets Philly? The Saints win the Super Bowl? What in the name of heaven is going on? It must be that time of year again, when we fulfill the sacred commandment to make fools of ourselves. It’s the Jews’ answer to Mardi Gras, it’s Purim! On this holiday, as on many others, we celebrate that some people (Persians in this case) tried to kill us and failed. Massacre averted=par-tay!
Sometimes Jewish holidays seem to come at odd times. Last month we celebrated Tu B’Shevat, which in Israel marks the time of new flowers and leaves on trees, while around here there’s not a leaf in sight and the only Flowers is Paury! But Purim, sweet Purim, makes perfect sense in our climate.
You’re freezing? Then eat some hot, yummy hamantashen, the Purim pastry par excellence. You’re still freezing? Put on a ridiculous costume and go to a Purim party (this Saturday night!). You’re still still freezing? On Purim we’re commanded to drink so much we can’t tell up from down or right from wrong. Not the most constructive approach to the winter blahs, but a very popular one among students at elite liberal arts colleges, so could it really be so wrong? Ah, Purim!
The commandments to make merry on Purim are the ones most often observed, not surprisingly, but there are other dimensions to the holiday.
On Purim, celebrants are obligated to help the poor. The Medieval rabbi Maimonides, one of the sexiest rabbis of all time (intellectually sexy, at least), ruled that while on Purim it’s great to eat and drink and get one’s groove on, it is even better to make gifts to the poor, widows, orphans, and strangers. On Purim we must give money or food to at least two poor people, Maimonides said, but if more ask for help then we must give to all of them.
It’s a crazy holiday, and it makes sense. The cathartic celebration of survival reminds us of those whose survival is in jeopardy, and in experiencing our vitality we realize that we can and must use at least a portion of it to help. In putting on masks and forgetting for a moment what’s right and what’s wrong, we can see ourselves in the shoes of the other and realize that our world often operates as if there were no difference between right and wrong.
At this year’s Purim, Jews everywhere are reaching out to the survivors of the earthquake in Haiti, a tragedy which could have been and should have been largely averted. Kef, the group that coordinates Jewish cultural and social events has made hamantashen for sale outside Sharples at lunch to raise money for Haiti relief—and to let everyone know about the Purim party Saturday night.
The lyrics of a song sung this time of year translate, “When the month of Purim starts, we cause happiness to increase.” May we be happy, and may we bring happiness to those for whom it is lacking. Happy Purim!