I really love Purim. In this post, I’ll explain four reasons why.
Purim tells us that holiness can be found in our world, not only in the lofty striving of the soul towards immaterial realms of transcendence, but right here, in the thick grit of our social, political, historical being-together. Purim tells us that we can find strength in times of darkness, when the face of G-d is hidden from us, when life is bleak and redemption seems most remote. Purim is a fleshy tale of diaspora struggle and resilience, that concerns itself, finally, with the eradication of white supremacy and Empire from the face of the earth. How, you ask? Read on…
1. G-d is in the struggle
The Talmud, in Shabbat 88a, tells a curious tale that connects the seemingly disparate events of Sinai and Purim. When the Jewish people, wandering in the desert, gathered at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, Hashem held the mountain menacingly above our heads and said to us, ‘If you accept my Torah, great! If not, here is your burial place!’ The rabbis voice a concern- this sounds pretty coercive! Was our acceptance of the covenant at Sinai truly genuine, if performed under compulsion? Nonetheless, answer the Rabbis, in the age of Achashverosh we again accepted the covenant, this time willingly. Facing the genocidal decree of Haman, we recommitted ourselves, defiantly, to our peoplehood and faith; we ‘ordained what we had already taken upon ourselves’ at Sinai.
At Sinai, the very essence of G-d was revealed to the Jewish people in an utterly transcendent, mystical, even psychedelic experience of theological and moral enlightenment and revelation. Purim is the dialectical opposite of this. In Purim times, the First Temple lay in ruins, and many doubted if return and rebuilding was still possible. The era of prophecy was drawing to a close, and the Jewish people, through a series of political twists and turns, narrowly escaped genocide under an oppressive regime.
At Sinai, we saw G-d face-to-face; in the Book of Esther, G-d’s name is not even mentioned. What a strange assertion, then, that the exalted heights of Sinai are bound intimately to the ‘mundane’ events of Purim, occurring 1000 years in the future!
Purim is the ultimate secular, materialist holiday. The Book of Esther (which, again, never mentions G-d) is wholly concerned, not with transcendent matters of the soul, but with the gritty, precarious survival of the Jewish people in history. Its narrative unfolds wholly in the realm of realpolitik, a tale strung along by palace intrigue, political calculation, human decisions, and sheer luck. On the surface of things, divine miracles are nowhere to be found; redemption Seemingly comes to the Jewish people solely through natural means.
One may assume that, since it deals with ‘political’ as opposed to ‘spiritual’ matters, Purim is held as a lesser holiday by the Rabbis. But quite the opposite- Purim, as Shabbat 88a tells us, is the foundation-stone of our very covenant with Hashem. For the sages, Purim is the happiest day of the year, comparable in importance to Rosh Hashanah- and its mandated merry-making carries a redemptive power equivalent to fasting on Yom Kippur. Tradition teaches that after the Messiah arrives, Purim is the only holiday Jews will continue to celebrate, and the Book of Esther is the only holy book, outside of the Five Books of Moses, that will not be nullified.
We can see why Purim is accorded this special status when we understand that concepts such as ‘G-d’, ‘holiness’ and ‘faith’ reign, for the Jewish people, not only in exalted spiritual realms, but also in the concrete, material worlds of politics and history. The Western dichotomy between the ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ is foreign to us. Just as the Jewish ‘faith’ does not rest in the heart’s interior but concerns itself, as halacha, with the immanent details of our lives, so does the spiritual heart of our people beat for this world, in all its vexing complexity.
The activists and organizers among us can be energized by this materialist strain of Jewish peoplehood and theology. The struggle to stay alive and avoid persecution; the shifting relations between social forces; the day-to-day work of politics and relationship-building; the desire to get safe and free right here, in the immanent unfolding of our social being-together- this, too, is holy.
Forty years after Sinai, the Jewish people entered the Land of Israel, formed a civilization, built a Temple, and established a Davidic kingdom. Why did the rabbis in Shabbat 88a not link these momentous events to Sinai, as proof and embodiment of G-d’s covenant with the Jewish people? Why, when looking for a post-Sinai moment in Jewish history when we ‘ordained what we had already taken upon ourselves’, did the rabbis ‘pass over’ our epic saga of self-empowerment in the Land of Israel, to focus instead 1000 years into the future, when we huddled vulnerable and precarious under a foreign king in Persia?
Purim is the quintessential holiday of diaspora, the only holiday that takes, as its chief concern, the saga of the Jewish people facing persecution and choosing resilience in a foreign land. (While Passover echoes similar themes, I hold that Purim holds greater resonance as a direct commentary on the complexities of post-Temple diasporic Jewish life).
For centuries, the narrative arc of Purim has reflected back, into the eyes and hearts of generations of Jews, all the concentrated hopes, anxieties, promises and travails of our diaspora experience. The communal re-telling of the Purim story in shul- the only public recitation whose attendance is halachically binding upon every Jew- becomes, for each diaspora community that bears witness, an opportunity to wrestle with intimate and lived questions of our power and powerlessness, our relationship to the ruling elite, the peril of our vulnerability and the promise of empowerment, and more.
Jewish tradition contains many deep teachings insisting that galut, exile, is intimately related to hitgalut, revelation. It is only when we are dispersed throughout the world, that we can truly make visible to all humanity that Hashem’s kingdom is indeed everywhere. Our ‘descent’ into exile is, in fact, part of a grand cosmic process of tikkun, unification or repair, which is necessary for the unfolding ‘ascent’, the completion and redemption of all Creation.
Tradition is ripe with such teachings emphasizing the generative, redemptive qualities of diaspora. These teachings did not serve simply to comfort Jews during the long, cold centuries of subjugation- rather, they formed the real backbone of a rich diasporic Jewish consciousness, cosmology and worldview, one often overlooked in prevalent modern Israel-centric conceptions of Jewish identity.
In this light, we can understand the rabbis’ linkage, in Shabbat 88a, of the revelation at Sinai- which itself occurred outside the land of Israel, in the in-between space of the desert- to the diasporic events of Purim. Perhaps, living in Babylonian exile centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple, this linkage of Sinai and Purim helped the Rabbis orient themselves in Jewish history, and imbue their condition with meaning and purpose.
This linkage carries an ethical message for our resilient people, as well. The covenant we make collectively with G-d, affirmed the rabbis, is concretized most primordially not when we exult in the empowerment of a Temple or a Davidic Kingdom, but rather, when we face our vulnerability in a time of precarity, when we place our trust in the redemptive power of a holy force beyond any earthly kingship.
We do not highlight this diasporist ethos in our own time, in order to score a hurried, oversimplistic political point against Israel and Zionism. Yesterday and today, dynamics of power and powerlessness, questions of exile and return remain complex for the Jewish people, and the stakes are high. We unearth subterranean strands of diasporism in order to remain attentive to all our tradition teaches us about our peoplehood, as we renew our task of being in the world, being with others, and being ourselves.
3. Personal resilience
This model of covenant as vulnerability carries resonance, not only for our peoplehood, but in our personal lives as well. As mentioned before, G-d’s name is absent from the Book of Esther, and any ‘divine’ or ‘miraculous’ import to the events of Purim is hidden behind a text which seems to depict a completely natural sequence of political events. Even the name ‘Esther’ evokes ‘hester’ or ‘hiddenness’, as in ‘hester panim’, the hiddenness of G-d’s face. The Purim story depicts a time when the Jewish people are vulnerable, frightened and on the brink of destruction- and yet here, in these very depths, we ‘ordain [the covenant] we had already taken upon ourselves’, here we are redeemed!
To be sure, we each have our ‘Sinai moments’- profound experiences of connection with the Oneness of the universe and the Source of all life, moments when we feel we have come face-to-face with an exalted, trippy Truth which has revealed itself to us. These moments surely are an important part of spiritual life- but perhaps, they aren’t the deepest part. Perhaps, like any relationship, our covenant with G-d- that is to say, our experience of the holy in our lives- is truly tested, deepened and concretized when things get hard, during times of darkness, when it seems like G-d is absent, when redemption from our travails feels farthest from view.
The words ‘Megillat Esther’, the Book of Esther, can be creatively translated as ‘the revelation of hiddenness’. Purim tells us that it is only here, in the dark night of the soul, when G-d is most radically absent, that we can truly ground an unbreakable covenant, can hold an eternal flame to the deepest darkness and affirm, in raw, unshakeable faith, that this, too, is holy.
4. Fighting white supremacy
Finally, I love Purim because, with a little digging, it can be read as a rallying cry to fight white supremacy, fascism and Empire. The archenemy of the Purim story, Haman, is identified by Rabbinic commentators as an embodiment of Amalek. The ‘eternal enemy of the Jewish people’, Amalek is described, by commentators, sometimes as an actual tribe of people sworn to attack the Jews in every generation, and more often as a spiritual force of corruption, sinfulness and degeneracy that plagues the world, standing diametrically opposed to Judaism’s holy light and purpose.
The original ancestor of Amalek was the grandson of the Biblical character of Esau, hunter, man of the flesh, pursuer of strength, celebrant of brute force. In medieval and rabbinic thought, Amalek was often conflated with Edom, another descendant of Esau, representing the spiritual force of materialism, corruption, extravagant wealth, decadence and state violence. From within the belly of the beast, the rabbinic critique of Edom/Amalek came to symbolize, over the centuries, a polemic against not only the Roman Empire- highly distrusted by the rabbis as the paradigm of human greed and moral bankruptcy- but, later, the oppressive forces of European Christianity and the larger Western world.
Amalek was sometimes theorized as the most ‘self-conscious’, ‘vanguard’ expression of Edom. Today, putting on our political theory hats, we understand that movements of fascism and white nationalism- which, from New Zealand and Pittsburgh to the White House, threaten to consume our world- represent the most concentrated, ‘vanguard’ expressions of larger structures of white supremacy, rooted in the legacy of capitalism in Christian Europe, that have fueled the Western world from the beginning. Today, we call Amalek and Edom by a different name- white supremacy, Christian hegemony, and Empire.
There are only two passages of Torah of which, each year, every Jewish man, woman, and child is halachically required to hear the recitation- the Book of Esther on Purim, and, on the Shabbat before Purim, a separate Torah passage announcing our obligation to destroy Amalek. In recent decades, right-wing Jewish movements have identified Islam and the Left as Amalek- a frightening inversion, with deadly results. To combat this chillul Hashem, some seek to do away with the traditions of Amalek entirely, or to ‘spiritualize’ Amalek to refer to principles of hate and intolerance more broadly.
I believe we owe it to our ancestors, who suffered under centuries of European Christian persecution culminating in fascism, to remain specific. The obligation to destroy Amalek is an obligation to eradicate systems and forces of white supremacy, Empire, greed-driven capitalism, and right-wing Christian fundamentalism plaguing our planet.
This Purim, may we rededicate ourselves to bringing the holy deep into every level of our lives and our worlds; may we recommit ourselves to fighting white supremacy, wherever it stands; may we reattach ourselves to all that which sparks light, even in thick darkness.
Chag Purim Sameach!