Hang around the Jewish world long enough, and you will eventually meet someone who tells you that there’s a “commandment” in the Gemara to drink yourself silly on Purim, specifically to drink until you don’t know the difference between Mordechai and Haman, two characters in the Esther story.
Said Rava: A man is obliged to intoxicate himself on Purim, till he cannot distinguish between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.” – Megillah 7b
The context doesn’t help: no reason is given that one should drink until one cannot tell the “good guy” from the “bad guy” in the story. Given all the pronouncements against drunkenness elsewhere in the Talmud and indeed in the Torah, it is extremely odd.
Eliach went looking for the reason Rava might have said such a thing. He looked into other statements by Rava, and learned that this one sage took a very dim view of Mordechai, reading the Esther story in a completely different way than is usual. In Rava’s reading, Mordechai does anything and everything for access to power, prostituting his niece in order to have a secret advantage at court. Mordechai’s lust for power came from arrogance, not piety, in this reading: he wouldn’t bow to Haman because he wasn’t going to bow to anyone. And by that act of arrogance, he endangers the entire community, bringing a pogrom down upon the heads of the Jews of Persia. According to Rava, Mordechai cloaks his ambition and arrogance in piety. Then Eliach draws his conclusion: perhaps the real message of Esther is to watch out for the Mordechais of this world, who claim to be pious but for whom piety is just a means to their real goal, power.
In summary, what Eliach found was that for Rava there was no difference between Mordechai and Haman. Both of them are bad guys: Haman for all the usual reasons, but Mordechai because he gambled with the safety of the Jewish people and with his niece.
There’s more in the original article (if you are intrigued, read it!) but I bring it up here for two reasons:
It’s the most inventive reading of Esther I’ve seen in a while, and
It illustrates beautifully that there is no single “correct” reading of the Bible.
One of the joys of study as a Jew is that we value an innovative interpretation such as Mr. Eliach has made. He makes a good rabbinical argument, looking at an anomaly in the tradition and then bird-dogging it through the texts to uncover a new understanding. That new understanding doesn’t necessarily supercede the old one, it just adds to it. The fact that in this case it produces a moral of the tale 180° from the more familiar moral just makes it more interesting. It’s also quite appropriate to Purim, the holiday when everything is hafuch (upside-down.)
The Torah and the Tanakh are given to us, to the Jewish People. We wrestle with them, and in every generation, some among us find new and wonderful ideas in there. We use both traditional tools and modern tools: Eliach makes his radical reading of Esther with the most traditional tools imaginable, the words of a 4th century rabbi. Another reader may dig at the text with a modern tool like structural criticism and find something wonderful, perhaps with a more traditional feel to it – Jewish text study is not without its ironies!
The point is, these texts are ours: Our to learn, ours to cherish, ours to poke and prod for new insight. Enjoy!
Purim’s coming! Don’t forget: one of the four main mitzvot of Purim is a gift to feed the poor.
In its strictest interpretation, that’s a gift to make sure that poor Jews can celebrate the holiday. You can fulfill that mitzvah, feeding Jews, by a couple of routes:
MAZON is a Jewish organization that feeds people in both North America and in Israel. They do not turn anyone away, but they are primarily focused on Jewish food insecurity.
Alternatively, you can give money to your rabbi’s discretionary fund. Every congregation has members who are living with food insecurity, usually silently. The rabbi sometimes becomes aware of these situations and the discretionary fund can help buy groceries. A rabbi’s discretionary fund is not a private slush fund for expenses. Those funds have to be spent on things that preserve the deductible status of the original gift (in the USA.)
However, we are taught by our tradition to feed ALL hungry people, not just Jews. Some other options:
Donate cash or goods to your local food pantry or food bank.
Persuade others to give to your local food bank.
This is different from the usual “tzedakah before a holiday” thing, although that’s certainly good on its own. This is a particular part of Purim observance. Partly this makes sure all can celebrate the holiday, but also look at the calendar: this holiday comes at what can be a brutal time of year for people with food insecurity. It’s cold and wet in many locations, and has been for months. Nutrition affects people’s resistance to colds and flu. Many kinds of produce are more expensive because of the season, too.
The Hebrew name for these Purim gifts is Matanot L’Evyonim (mah-ta-NOTE l’ev-yon-EEM): Gifts to the Poor. Purim is actually the traditional Jewish gift-giving holiday: we give gifts to the poor, and food gifts to friends.
The root of tzedakah (charity) is tzedek, justice. It is unfair that so many are hungry. In my own home state of California, 15% of households – that’s over 2 million people! – are currently suffering with food insecurity. There are parents going hungry to feed their children and children going hungry because there isn’t enough to go around. This is a shanda (scandal.)
Before we put on our festive masks, let’s each choose a place to send what we can!
Ask most American Jews about Purim and they will mention children’s parties, silly Purim Shpiels, costumes, and masks. They may tell you the story of Queen Esther. They might tell you about drinking alcohol in quantities not seen on any other holiday. They are less likely to mention one of the sweetest customs of the day: mishloach manot. (meesh-LOW-ach mah-NOTE) This is the mitzvah of wrapping up small gifts of food or drink to give to family and friends. If the Hebrew name is a tongue twister, call them Purim Goody Bags.
While it is a commonly observed mitzvah in some places, I had never seen it in my home congregation in Oakland. My first experience with mishloach manot was when one of my teachers at Hebrew Union College, Dr. Rachel Adler, showed up at class with a shopping bag loaded with a small brown paper bag for each student in her classes. Mine had a tiny bottle of kosher grape juice and 2 cookies. I was thrilled, then immediately felt guilty that I hadn’t brought her a goody bag, too.
Most sources give two reasons for this mitzvah: (1) to make sure that everyone has good things to eat to celebrate the holiday and (2) to promote good feelings and harmony in the Jewish community. It’s based on a verse in the Scroll of Esther:
Therefore the Jews of the villages that dwelt in the unwalled towns made the 14th day of the month of Adar a day of gladness and feasting, a holiday, and of sending portions to one another. – Esther 9:19
The gifts must be food, not money. They must be delivered during the day of Purim. They are given in addition to a special gift to feed the hungry, not instead of it, and one should not buy the gifts with money from one’s tzedakah (charity) budget. And despite my initial guilt feelings over Dr. Adler’s generosity, mishloach manot do not require a reciprocal gift.
The minimum to fulfill the mitzvah is a package of two prepared food items to one person. “Package” is a flexible term: I have seen fancy gift baskets of food for sale for Purim in Israel, but I have never received a sweeter mishloach manot package than the little brown bags Dr. Adler passed out to us with cookies and juice. One hectic year I used foil to make shiny little packages with wrapped candies inside. Mara Strom has written a charming article with 101 ideas for mishloach manot on a budget. The idea is generosity and delight, not ostentation or excess.
There are four main mitzvot of Purim: The Reading of the Megillah, Eating a Festive Meal, Giving Gifts to the Poor, and Mishloach Manot. Which of these mitzvot have you done in the past? Which might you like to try this year?
There are three days of the year when synagogues are weird. Services are not typical. The crowd attending the synagogue is not typical. Even the clergy may not be their usual selves.
In other words, those are bad days to “shul-shop,” to visit a prospective synagogue. Here they are:
Purim is fun, if you are a member of the community. But it is an evening when people wear masks, get rowdy, and may be a little tipsy. There may be a play, a “Purim Shpiel,” with lots of inside jokes that won’t make any sense to you. In the daytime, there will be a children’s carnival, with hordes of sugar-crazed little ones. Don’t visit for the first time on Purim – it could be the nicest shul in the world but you will want to flee screaming.
2. Rosh HaShanah
Rosh HaShanah (Jewish New Year) services are beautiful. However, they are also very long.The rabbi’s sermon will be longer, too. Like a church at Easter, every member is there and more dressed up than usual. The service, and the music, are different from regular services. Tickets are usually required. Don’t visit for the first time on Rosh HaShanah – it may be pretty, but it just isn’t typical.
and now, for the VERY WORST DAY TO VISIT A SYNAGOGUE:
1. Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur is the worst possible day to visit a new synagogue. Nothing is normal. The evening service, Kol Nidre, is much like Rosh HaShanah: everyone dressed up, solemn music, lengthy sermon, a huge crowd. And in the morning service, it is all that but even more so: no one has had any coffee. If you are already part of the community, then misery has company. We do the work of the day (praying), we kvetch about our caffeine headaches, services go on and on and on. The music is still beautiful. But it is no place or time to take the temperature of a synagogue, because the singers are hired, the clergy is tired, and no one has had any coffee.
When is a good time to shop for a shul? Any day but those three days!
Some of us missed out on a Jewish childhood. We were raised in another tradition, or no tradition at all.
Some of us missed out on parts of it, or something happened that messed everything up.
Let me tell you a little secret: it’s never too late to have a Jewish childhood.
Want to have a bar or bat mitzvah? Talk to your rabbi about studying for an adult bar mitzvah. Yes, you can have a party, too.
Depressed that you never got to play dreidel? Invite people over for a night of Chanukah games and latkes!
Mad that you didn’t get to go to Hebrew school? It isn’t too late to take Hebrew classes.
Sad that you’ll never ask the Four Questions at the seder table? Host a seder with adults, and schedule yourself to chant them – you can do it!
Longing to dress up like Queen Esther on Purim? Or like a firefighter? Why not?
Yearning for a bubbe or a zayde? Talk to your rabbi about adopting a “grandparent.” Someone needs you as much as you need them.
Envious of youth trips to Israel? Ask your rabbi to help you find an affordable program open to your age group.
Wish that someone had taught you how to keep a kosher household, lay tefillin, make matza brei? Ask a friend or take a class!
You are the person in charge of your Jewish experience. If there’s something you want to learn, there’s someone teaching it. If there’s something you want to do, there’s a way. Will it be easy? No, but it might not have been easy as a child, either (ask any bat mitzvah if that Torah portion came easily!)