We were horrified this morning as we awoke to the news that two blasts had rocked the Belgian capital of Brussels. With dozens of people dead and wounded, we grieve with the Belgian people, with all those visiting who were victimized, and with their families. Only four months after the deadly attacks in Paris, the citizens of the region are still reeling from pillar to post. The sophistication of both these European capitals stands in stark contrast to the wanton violence that has been inflicted upon them. Unfortunately, we in New York are well acquainted with this contrast. So are the people of Israel and throughout the Middle East. So are the people of San Bernadino, and Washington, and cities throughout the world. We have seen the underbelly of human capacity; the potential for evil that exists within human beings.
This Wednesday night and Thursday we in the Jewish community will celebrate one of the most joyous festivals of our year, the Festival of Purim. It is a time of costumes and shpiels, silliness and laughter, eating and drinking – drinking, in fact, to excess (as long as we don’t have to drive!). We should revel in this cathartic release of tension that is, in so many ways, a gift from the architects of Jewish tradition.
This being said, we do acknowledge, however, that our celebration of Purim is in large measure a denial of the very text around which the festival is built – Megillat Ester, the Scroll of Esther. Known popularly as “The Megillah,” the story is in many ways a completely ridiculous fantasy, filled with palace intrigue, absurd stereotypes, and linguistic acrobatics that are designed to tie our tongues. But it is also the story of a cruel Persian governor who hatched a plan to annihilate the Jewish people en masse. And in turn, it is the story of the Jews’ turning the tables, and hanging him on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai the Jew. The Megillah is filled with violence and hatred, men who treat women like chattel, women who use sex to manipulate men, and murderous impulses within all of us.
There have been all too many times, even in recent history, in which the themes of Purim have been played out in real life. Hitler, for instance, banned the Jews from observing Purim. On November 10, 1938, the Nazi journalist Julius Streicher claimed in a speech that just as “the Jew butchered 75,000 Persians” in one night, the same fate would have befallen the German people as the Jews would have instituted a new Purim festival in Germany. Numerous additional massacres were carried out throughout Poland and Germany during the following years by the Nazis on the day of Purim.
More recently, the Dizengoff Center Suicide Bombing in Tel Aviv took place on the eve of Purim (March 4, 1996), killing 13 people.
And sadly, there have been those within our own community who have used this festival as an excuse to unleash the demons within themselves. Witness the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein, a Jew originally from Brooklyn, in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron in 1994, upon a mosque filled with men at prayer. He killed 29 souls and wounded 125.
As we all understand, this is never what Purim was meant to be. Purim is meant as a catharsis for us; to yell, and scream, and laugh, and make noise, so that we release the tensions that surround us, both individually and communally. Purim is not a festival that calls us to violence. It is meant as a vehicle through which we can sublimate our frustrations. Haman is the villain of the Megillah. So what does our tradition teach us to do? Eat triangle-shaped pastries filled with jam, in memory of the hat he wore. Blow horns and swing groggers. Go nuts, and enjoy it for a few hours.
And above all, we dare not forget the ethical values of Jewish tradition: kindness, respect, charity, and the pursuit of peace. Remember that after all the goings-on in the Megillah, at the very end we are urged to bring gifts of food to the needy. That is what Judaism teaches, and that is why we celebrate Purim.
And so, even in the midst of such overwhelming sadness and global tension, I encourage us all to celebrate this festival with joy, even as we remember the abiding values of our faith. And I wish one and all a Chag Sameach and a Freiliche Purim.
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