I recently gave a workshop at the Chabad women’s conference in New York. The talk was about the struggle of parenting while co-directing a Chabad center.
I presented some of the paradoxes of this existence (in a fishbowl). Paradoxes such as long days and short years; all joy and no fun (just kidding); slow motion and fast speed; the big stuff when they are little and the little stuff when they are big; and when I accept who I am, then I can change.
We know the good ones.
Because of this workshop, my mind has been searching for more of life’s little puzzles — then Purim popped up on my calendar, and here we are.
The Purim story is full of paradoxes.
A revealed miracle remains hidden. Hidden miracles are revealed.
The heroine is named Esther, but the holiday is called Purim.
We Jews dress up and share baskets of nosh (candy/treats), but more Jews know about and/or celebrate Halloween.
We dress up to hide who we really are, yet this reminds us of our true identity.
Purim is celebrated in the most physical sense, with food and revelry, but we can reach the same spiritual place achieved through the holy austerity of Yom Kippur.
The story behind Purim is that Esther, the simple Jewess, risked her life to save the Jewish people from annihilation. That destructive idea came from the wicked Haman with the acquiescence of King Achashverosh.
The holiday gets its name from pur, an ancient Persian word for the lottery Haman drew to decide on which date he would wage a surprise war against the Jewish people. Esther begged the king to allow the Jews to defend themselves on that doomsday.
Thus, the Jews were prepared, and instead of being killed because of Haman’s nefarious plot, they won the war. Haman’s plan failed. It is a great celebration.
In America, Purim flies under the Jewish radar. Hollywood has not caught on and inculcated it into mainstream culture as it has Chanukah and Passover and even Yom Kippur.
It’s a shame. Anyone who grew up with Purim knows there is a lot of raw material at the Purim feast.
In all seriousness, it is the most fun of all Jewish holidays. Dress up and party. The story is exciting and seems natural, with no overt miracles but plenty of undercover providence creating surprising turns of fate.
There is food and drink aplenty, and other than sitting down to listen to the story of Esther being read from the megillah (once in the evening and once during the daytime), there is no spiritual component of sitting in prayer all day.
The central theme is about community and friendship — coming together for a festive meal and exchanging baskets of food and drink while remembering those who cannot afford their own meal because giving charity to the poor is a specific mitzvah on this day.
Even though Purim is not as popular among American Jews, we are told that one day when there will be peace on Earth and we will live in the utopian times of Moshiach, Purim and Yom Kippur will be the only two holidays still celebrated.
No more Rosh Hashanah, Shavuot, Chanukah or Sukkot. Just Purim. And, as the ancient kabbalists would say, Yom Kippur(im) (literally Day Like Purim).
Seems strange that the holiest day of the year, the day we are engaged completely in the service of our Judaism and godliness, and the most raucous day of the year are juxtaposed as one day being like the other. It would seem you could not find more dissimilar ways to practice as a Jew.
So what is it about these two days that share a name?
In Judaism, a name is connected to essence, so we must look at the crux of these two days and find their sameness.
Each holiday has pur, or lottery, in it.
Haman drew a lot to determine on which date to kill all the Jews.
The high priest drew a lot in the Holy Temple on Yom Kippur to determine which of the two goats he was standing between would be offered to G-d and which one should carry off the sins of Israel to the desert.
When you are relying on a lottery, you are relying on fate, but this goes two ways. You rely on fate because you feel helpless.
When you don’t know, you say, “May the best man win.” They are equal in my eyes. I have no way to differentiate or to make a judgment call.
This is the pur of Yom Kippur. When we come before G-d humbled and depleted, we understand that we don’t have control over our fate (only over our choices), but we show up. We know there is an order in the world, but we are not privy to the how or why.
We have done all that we know how to do. We have prayed and fasted, and now we turn to G-d for His benevolence. It is a day of supreme spirituality. We untether ourselves from the physical pleasures of our daily life and instead spend our time in prayer and introspection.
Or you cast lots because life is arbitrary. Nothing matters. Whoever wins got lucky. You see disorder and assume it is because nobody is at the wheel. It’s just the luck of the draw. My actions don’t matter.
That was the intent of Haman’s lot for Purim. He was trying to game the system, of which he thought there was none. Or at best, he thought he was smarter than the divine order.
And herein lies the greatest paradox of it all because it was through Haman’s absolute disregard for the Jewish people and for G-d that he brought about the greatest unity between G-d and His people. The utter fear and terror Haman aroused among the Jews caused them to gather together. They prayed and fasted. Then they prepared to defend themselves.
Unbeknownst to them, G-d had set the stage for their victory by placing Esther in the palace as the queen. Esther’s uncle Mordechai was now the chief of staff, and Haman the wicked vanished from the scene, hanged on the very gallows he intended for Mordechai.
The horror of the mission was already mitigated without the chief terrorist.
When the Jewish people won, there was intense joyfulness in the community. Nowhere else in our history is victory described in such terms as it is in Megillat Esther: LaYehudim hayta ora v’simcha v’sasson vikar (the Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor; may it be for us as well). Purim is meant to be celebrated with absolute joy and happiness.
It is the realization that although it doesn’t always appear so, the world is a place of order, meaning and purpose. To be mindful of this inspires joy, which helps us reach our fullest potential as people.
On Purim, through joy and celebration with mundane things like eating and drinking, we accomplish or even supersede the gravitas of Yom Kippur (remember, it’s only a day like Purim). Which tells us that what we consider basic is actually a vehicle for even greater spiritual possibility.
Looking around and seeing chaos and thinking, “Man! This is a jungle; each to their own!” — that is depressing. That is sadness. That is terror. That is Haman.
When you look around and perhaps see a jungle, but you know He is in charge, you get that feeling of “I’ve got this.” That is comfort. That is joyful.
I’ll do my job, and He does His job. Daily. Hourly. Every minute.
When we know that G-d holds the master plan, we are grateful. When you can see through the muck and with a knowing smile realize “It’s gonna be all right,” you have the confidence to move forward with great success. This is our potential. This is the paradox. Order in the chaos.
This is Purim. Learn it. Live it. Enjoy it.
Dena Schusterman is a founder of Chabad Intown, a Jewish educator, and a founding director of both the Intown Jewish Preschool and the Intown Hebrew School. She and her husband, Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman, are native Californians living in Atlanta for 20 years with their eight children.