How Do We Add Back What is Missing in Purim?
With the addition of an extra month in the Hebrew calendar, (remember how early the Days of Awe were this year?) we will be returning to a more normal sense of timing for the holiday cycle, i.e. with Purim on Saturday night March 15 (instead of February which would have been the case were there no leap year).
The adding of an extra month is in contrast to what is missing in Purim, some “good” and some “challenging”.
What is good, especially for traditional Jews is that Purim, not being a Torah holiday, provides leniency in observance. Unlike Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Shabbat and the Days of Awe, there are no restrictions or limitations in one’s regular schedule in terms of work or other activity as is the case for all these other holidays. Like Chanukah, (another non-Torah holiday), Purim fits into everything else going on in your schedule.
In Israel that is liberating in that observant Jews can enjoy having their cake and eating it too in celebrating this holiday, i.e. first in Tel Aviv on Saturday night and Sunday and then driving to Jerusalem and celebrating it again on Monday, for reasons that come from the Megilla. The battle for Jewish survival lasted an extra day in the capital city of Shushan in Persia, so walled cities from that period traditionally celebrate Purim a day later; that includes Jerusalem! Were the rules governing Purim the same as those covering the Torah holidays, Jews in Israel would not be able to travel from one part of the country to Jerusalem for an extra day of fun and frivolity that characterizes the celebration of Purim. My memories of being in Israel as a student for the year and enjoying it as described here are experiences I will always treasure.
So the strictures that are missing in Purim allow for some special ways of appreciating this fun-filled holiday.
Also missing from the holiday, or more specifically from the Megilla of Esther, which is at the heart of our celebration, is any mention of God. That is where what is missing is challenging. It is symbolic of something else unique about Purim, a holiday that accentuates life outside of Israel. It is unique as a Diaspora holiday, whose focus is not Israel, as is the case for the Torah holidays, but ancient Persia. The absence of God from the Megilla symbolizes challenges for many/most Jews living outside Israel.
Many Jews identify with their Jewishness in a way that includes various facets and factors but, especially in these modern times, not necessarily God. In fact, as I have suggested over the years, many of us grew up with rabbis and congregations that exposed us to prayer and all manner of Jewish life without much mention of God, outside of the words in the prayers. That was the case with my father who was a prominent and revered rabbi for nearly 50 years in San Francisco. While he made certain that his Conservative synagogue had a daily minyan, morning and evening services, he was not particularly comfortable conversing with me about God. His focus was on other areas central to Judaism: history, customs, rituals, ethics and Jewish destiny. God, as in the book of Esther, remained in the background.
The paradox is that the story of Judaism from the start is one of partnership with God. Since the disappearance of the Ten Tribes and our embracing the name of the surviving remnant of Israel, the Tribe of Judah, by which we identify as Jews, we have been in survival mode. Instead of wrestling with God (the name “Israel”) we have been thanking God for daily life (the name “Judah” is rooted in “thank you”) and in so doing taking much of that for granted, i.e. form, how/when we pray, replacing or overshadowing content, the meaning of our customs, habits and observances.
Purim, the Diaspora holiday, is similarly grounded in the circumstances of life in which God is either taken for granted or out of consciousness. It is filled with laughter, nervous laughter reminding us that through the ages our home in the world is precarious, whether in Israel whose miraculous return after over 2000 years of Diaspora invites us to revisit Jewish meaning and purpose, or in the many areas of Jewish habitation i.e. Europe where anti-Semitism continues to grow. The fact that through the ages we have survived even as great and mighty nations (ironically, themselves relegated to the history books) attempted to remove us, with the horrors of the Shoah still fresh in our consciousness, reminds us that we must never take our survival for granted.
As for God, however one accounts for our continuity, it is difficult to explain in logical, i.e. human terms. By any and all human measurements there is no way we could still be alive, especially with Israel and its remarkable achievements, in many ways thriving.
This is quite topical given that as I write these words, there is focus on reminding the world, as acknowledged by President Obama in his State of the Union, that Israel is the Jewish State, not just a country in the Middle East with a majority of Jewish citizens. Coinciding with that discussion is the ongoing debate for inclusion of all branches of Judaism in Israeli life, i.e. different ways and options for celebrating God’s Presence in our existence.
So, enjoy Purim! In so doing ponder what is missing for good and for not and feel free to muse about miracles, whether in your life, or in the continuity of our people, that allow and encourage you to bring God into the equation and embrace that partnership as a way of fulfilling greater purpose in your life.