Thursday, March 3, 2011

Flipping Purim On Its Head

A Midrash teaches us that when the Messianic Age finally arrives and the world is perfected, there will be no need for any holidays or celebrations, so they will almost all be abolished. There will only be one holiday that will be celebrated in Jewish practice. We might think that holiday would be Yom Kippur, the one time most of us are in the synagogue, or Passover because it celebrates our redemption, or even Shabbat because it is a taste of the world to come. But we would be wrong on all three counts. Yes, the only holiday we will keep on our calendar in a perfected world will be Purim.

Doesn’t it seem a little odd that a minor festival focused on kids’ celebrations and joviality would be described by the rabbis as the only one that will exist in the future? Purim is a time to let loose our inhibitions, dress in silly costumes, drink alcohol, eat sweets, and listen to a lewd and funny story read from a scroll that looks a lot like our Torah. Some of the traditions of Purim are wonderful, like giving mishloach manot, “gift baskets,” to friends or to the needy. Some are strange, like eating cookies named after the villain’s ear. Others are just not recommended, like drinking until we cannot discern two characters of the Purim Spiel. Is this really the type of celebration we want to remain in a perfect world?

Perhaps when we put together two themes of the Purim story we can understand the rabbis’ intent when they suggest Purim will be eternal.

First is the theme of reversals. In the Purim story everything gets flipped on its head. Near the end of the Megillah it even points out that everything Haman had planned had the opposite effect: “…the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, v’na’afoch hu, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power” (Esther 9:1). Haman built a gallows for Mordechai and was instead impaled upon it. Haman planned to kill the Jews on the 13th of Adar, but that was the day he was killed. He had planned glory and honor for himself that was instead bestowed upon Mordechai. V’na’afoch hu, the opposite happened, and the story is flipped on its head.

Second is the theme of hidden-ness. Haman hides a plot to assassinate the king and take his power, which Mordechai discovers only by hiding while he discusses it. The hero of the Purim story, Esther, derives her name from the Hebrew root that means hidden. Esther hides her identity from the King, and not until the climax of the story does she reveal that she is Jewish, thereby initiating all of the flipping that is done to Haman. In our Purim celebrations, we hide our own identities under costumes.

Perhaps the most striking hidden thing in the story is God. God is never mentioned in Megillat Esther. No miracles happen, nobody says a prayer, not once do we read God’s name during the Purim story. So if God is hidden, when na’afoch hu, the opposite happens, we become completely aware of God’s presence. It is evident at all times. In a perfect world, when we are completely aware of God’s presence at all times, it only makes sense that Purim be our only holiday. Because then Purim itself will be reversed, v’na’afoch hu, and the opposite will happen.

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