A holiday with two faces

A holiday with two faces

Purim | Tetzave — Exodus 27:20-30:10

Many pearls of wisdom are contained in Yiddish stories and folk songs. One such song deals with the upcoming holiday:

Haynt iz Purim
Morgen iz oys
Gib mir a groschen
Und varft mir aroys.

Roughly translated:

“Today is Purim
Tomorrow it is over
Give me a nickel,
And throw me out.”

For me, this ditty always conveyed the notion that Purim was a fleeting experience. Here today, gone tomorrow, so take advantage of it while you can.

No question about it: There is a carnival-like atmosphere to Purim, an unrestrained celebration we allow ourselves but once a year. For one day, we celebrate the fact that we avoided genocide. We are wildly happy, we feast, drink perhaps a bit too much, and put on garish costumes.

This is certainly one aspect of Purim. Celebrate joyously, discard constraint — but just for one day. Then Purim is oys, over. There is, however, another perspective on Purim, which is not at all transitory, a counter-theme that is well expressed by our sages’ insistence that even if all other Jewish festivals will no longer be celebrated, Purim will last forever.

As joyous as Purim is, there is a solemn side to it that is expressed by the observation made by the kabalists long ago that Yom Kippur is called “Yom Hakippurim,” a day like Purim. The most somber and awe-filled day of the Jewish calendar in some way resembles the zaniest one.

How are we to understand that?

The answer lies in the very nature of the celebration. We celebrate survival, plain and simple physical survival. For that, wild abandon and unbridled joy are appropriate first reactions. But soon thereafter, we must ask ourselves, “Survival for what? What higher purpose must we achieve? What higher objectives must we strive for, now that we have, by the grace of God, survived?”

Purim contains another message, that is as a day that we freely accepted upon ourselves the Torah, which previously we were coerced into accepting. The original acceptance of the Torah on Mount Sinai, our sages tell us, took place under duress. The Almighty, as it were, held the mountain over our heads and threatened, “Either accept the Torah or this mountain will be your grave.”

On Purim, we went beyond that. The Torah was now appreciated as something we really want, as the very reason for our survival. And so, part of Purim is not just “feasting and joy”; it is a rededication to a higher cause, a more mature understanding of why the Torah is necessary.

In a certain sense, many of us today have accepted the Torah under coercion. We were forced into Torah observance because that is how we were brought up; we were given no choice in the matter. Or we want to fit in with a certain group of people and, to do so, must conform to the Torah’s ways.

Purim demands that we reflect upon the importance of Torah study and observance without compulsion, in a freer fashion. When we identify with the Purim story — and with all too numerous similar stories of survival — we find ourselves asking, “Survival for what?” Then each of us finds his or her own answer, and that answer cannot but involve, in some way, a rededication to, a reacceptance of, a new relationship with Torah.

When the Jews emerged victorious from their would-be murderers, they all experienced “light and joy, gaiety and dignity.” But the Purim experience also must involve “light and dignity,” the light of spirituality and wisdom, the dignity of a life of meaning and purpose.

I wish all a happy Purim — of both kinds. Enjoy both the joy of festive celebration, and the light of commitment and renewal.

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