The Two-Way Street | Sobering Thoughts in Advance of Purim

Rabbi Benjamin Weiner
on March 5, 2019

An old Yiddish expression speaks of a topsy-turvy person as one who is “drunk the whole year and sober on Purim.” I want to suggest, in a similar vein, that in times as befuddled as ours we might need to look through the lens of Purim to achieve some measure of sobriety.

“When Adar comes in,” goes the more familiar Hebrew saying, “we increase our merriment.” This seasonal joy, on the one hand, is spring fever, the giddy rush of blood that comes with emergence from winter. But, on the other, the riot of “carnival” — originally a Catholic word for the eating of meat before abstinence — is equally applicable to the sensibility of Purim, the focal point of Adar’s giddiness. This is especially true in relation to the moral thrust of the rest of Jewish tradition. Consider the signature eccentricities through which we celebrate the holiday: the wearing of masks and costumes and the custom of ad lo yada — intoxication to the point we can no longer tell friend from foe — to which I’ve already alluded. These are hardly habits of immaculate piety, but rather flirtations with those Bacchanalian forces of human character that ambush civilized intent and bring confusion to the ethical mind.

Purim is also presented as a historical holiday, both in the sense of commemorating a situation in Jewish antiquity — Esther and the travails of the Persian exile — and of uncannily prefiguring an enduring phenomenon of Jewish existence. Queen Esther and her Uncle Mordechai foil the murderous anti-Semitism (to use an anachronistic term) of Haman through ingratiation with King Achashverosh — effectively positioning themselves relative to fickle power for the salvation of their people. Masks play a role here, too, like the one that Esther wears, as it were, concealing and revealing her true face according to the needs of the moment. Then there is Mordechai, dressed in the clothes of the king and paraded through the streets of Shushan by his enemy, a foreshadowing of the actual prominence he will later achieve. This is a tale of tactical role playing, and the leveraging of available power, which is to say: It is a story of Jewish survival in the Diaspora. In fact, it is a diasporic fantasy. In the annals of Jewish reality, deliverances (if they came at all) were never as conclusive as the one of the Megillah, and were inevitably followed by butcheries such that Haman could only dream of. That is until, eventually, strategies of masking and subterfuge were set aside for the aspiration of becoming a free nation in our own land.

But the realization of this dream brought its own topsy-turvy costume changes, like Mordechai setting aside his sackcloth for robes of power. Further, the celebration of newfound power has engendered its own intoxications. In Israel this has taken the form of an entrenched occupation, while in America it has led to the emboldening of uncompromising, hardline voices in conversations surrounding Mideast policy. It strikes me, in any event, that we have just about drunk ourselves to ad lo yada, that point when Haman and Mordechai share a common bleary face, when we slap horns on social progressives while embracing despots, invite otzma to take a seat in our bayit, and surrender the last shred of our reserve to the fever of carnival.

I have nothing against spring fever, mind you, but I also recall that deliverance comes in the Purim story through orgiastic violence. If, as the sages of the Talmud said, Purim is the only holiday we’ll celebrate when the mashiach comes, I hope they weren’t thinking about this, but rather that moment when, after three days of fasting, Esther removes her mask, revealing a true and honest face to the king. This great queen knew, after all, that when facing an existential threat, it’s best to be sober.

Rabbi Benjamin Weiner has been the spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Amherst, for almost a decade. Before that, he worked for a time as a translator of Hebrew and Yiddish, and also wrote occasionally for publications including the Forward, Religion Dispatches and Pakn Treger. He lives with his wife, Cantor Elise Barber, and their son, Efraim, on a three-acre family homestead in Western Massachusetts, along with several dairy goats and chickens.

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