A long time ago in a country far far away….
Purim is a genuinely strange holiday. I’m going to focus on only one aspect of its inherent weirdness, the name itself. Purim is the only holiday to celebrate events outside of Israel that affect only a small portion of the Jewish people. As a result, it is the only such holiday for which we do not recite Hallel. Purim’s name reflects that foreign origin. It is named from “Pur, that is, the lot.” Purim is a Persian word.
This short verse provides more strangeness. There are two connections to Yom Kippur, our oldest and most primitive holiday. First, Yom Kippur also features a lottery. The center of the Yom Kippur offering is the two goats, one for God and one sent to Azazel. It is the only other mention in the Bible of this kind of lottery that will determine the fate of the Jewish people. Second Yom hakiPURIM , the Biblical name for Yom Kippur, hides within it the name PURIM.
One more bit of strangeness, though this hardly exhausts the list. Not once in the story of Esther is God’s name mentioned. God acts behind the scenes or not at all. The narrative has its own force with no explicit mentions of miracles or God’s power. God, however, is weirdly hidden in the scroll itself. The first word of nearly every column is the word “HaMelech, the King.” It echoes the High Holiday liturgy by reminding us of God’s sovereignty.
For the Rabbis, Purim and Yom Kippur provide bookends to the year. Yom Kippur is all about seriousness and repentance, about finding God and meaning in intentionality and prayer. Yom Kippur asks us to put aside our doubt and reach out to God in order to become better people through prayer and repentance. The work is hard but straightforward.
Purim, with so many echoes of the High Holidays, asks something different. This strange holiday invites us to search for meaning even when it appears hidden. It invites us to use different tools to grow and become blessings. Joy and community, laughter and fun are its primary techniques. Purim substitutes letting go of inhibitions and pretend play for intentionality and prayer.
God may be hidden, says Purim, so let’s all have some fun to find God! Like a child playing peek-a-boo, the hiddenness invites us into a game. And it is through that game that something redemptive and hopeful can be found as we giggle and grow and laugh.
The echoes of the High Holidays in the silliness of Purim are strange. And yet they call our attention to the sometimes absurdity of our life and our search for purpose and meaning. By giving us some tools, tools that live in exile and distance from God, tools that are empowered by doubt and absence, Purim may be giving us exactly what we need to find a conditional meaning that can redeem us in this moment.
May your Purim be filled with joy, with laughter, and with healing.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim
Rabbi David Booth