I have been struggling for weeks over a post that I wanted to make about Purim. There’s a dark side to Purim, a very dark side. Its yearly permission to hate Haman and to “blot out Amalek” has borne some evil fruit over the centuries. Finally, though, someone wiser and more articulate than me has written what I was trying to say. Shaul Magid has published The Dark Side of Purim in The Forward, and I recommend it.
Note: The article quotes the eminent Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz. I am told by Rabbi Josh Yuter that that is an apocryphal story, that in fact he never said that.
Purim can be fun, it can bear good fruit, but it always makes me uneasy, too. Magid articulates this unease quite beautifully.
Esther 3:1 After these things, Ahasuerus promoted Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and elevated him, and set his seat above all the nobels that were with him.
The Book of Esther doesn’t say why Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the bad guy of the story. What the book does say is that he was the son of an Agagite, which provides a link back to Israel’s Biblical enemy, Amalek.
Agag, the king of Amalek, appears first in the blessing of Balaam (Numbers 24:7) but he comes up again and again, finally to war again with Israel and be killed off by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 15. Amalek was an enemy we first encountered in the wilderness, where that nation preyed upon the stragglers on the margins of the camp (Exodus 17: 8-10). At the end of that chapter, God says to Moses:
Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.
This verse makes a puzzle: how can we memorialize Amalek, rehearse the story of Amalek, but utterly blot out remembrance of Amalek?
First, and simplest, this is why we boo and make the groggers roar at the name of Haman. We are “blotting out” his name.
But more importantly, this is a warning about all the enemies to come in Jewish history as it unfolds, whether it is Rome, or Ferdinand & Isabella of Spain, or Hitler. On the one hand: don’t forget. And on the other hand: don’t give these guys too much attention. Don’t reduce Judaism to ONLY remembering.
Purim reminds us that as long as we are here to celebrate it, Amalek has not prevailed. So yes, we remember all the stories from the bad old days, but also we live vital lives of Torah in the here and now. The Holocaust is important to remember, but it is also important not to make it the sum total of our identity as Jews. We are more than what has been done to us.
If you are new to synagogue, Purim is either a treat or a shock, maybe both. It’s a holiday based in the Biblical book of Esther, which is such a wild, farcical document that it very nearly didn’t get included in the Bible. Here’s what you need to know:
1. WHEN?Purim falls on 14 Adar. In a leap year, it falls on 14 Adar II. There may be something called Shushan Purim on your Jewish calendar, but you only need to worry about it if you live in a walled city such as Jerusalem. For conversion to the secular calendar, check a Jewish calendar.
2. THE STORY For the whole megillah [scroll] read the Book of Esther in the Bible. The short version: The Jewish community in Persia is nearly annihilated when King Ahasuerus’s chief minister, Haman, takes a dislike to them. The king’s queen, Esther, is secretly a Jew and she intervenes to save the day. The full story, in the Bible, is at least R-rated for both sex and violence, but in most American synagogues what you will hear is the G-rated version edited for children’s ears.
3. MITZVAH 1 – HEAR THE STORY. We are commanded to hear the story every year. We fulfill that mitzvah either by hearing the scroll chanted or by seeing it acted out in a Purim Shpiel, with lots of audience participation. It is traditional to drown out the name of the villain, Haman, with noisemakers like groggers or with boos.
4. MITZVAH 2 – FESTIVE BANQUET.We are commanded to enjoy a festive meal on Purim. One theme for the holiday is feasting – if you read the story, you’ll notice there are lots of parties in it. Hamentaschen are three-cornered filled cookies associated with the holiday.
5. MITZVAH 3 – GIFTS TO POOR PEOPLE.We are commanded to see to it than even the poorest people can enjoy a festive meal – hence, gifts of food to the poor. (A donation to the Food Bank in your area works nicely.)
6. MITZVAH 4 – MISHLOACH MANOT (Meesh-LOW-ach man-OAT) are small gifts of baked goods, wine, or other goodies, given to friends to enhance their feasting. Ideally they are a little package of more than one goodie.
7. COSTUMES. Many Jews, both children and adults, wear costumes to synagogue for the Purim festivities. Often people dress as characters from the Purim story, but pirates, astronauts, and superheroes are good, too. Some just wear a mask for Purim, because one of the themes of the holiday is secret identities.
8. DRINKING.There is a tradition that one should drink “until one cannot tell Haman from Mordechai” – the bad guy from the good guy. This, too, is a theme from the story but it has too often been taken to excess. Don’t drink and then drive home from synagogue, or push alcohol on anyone, please. No matter what anyone tells you, getting drunk is never a mitzvah.