The Holiday That Includes All Others
On Purim, the real covenant was born
The month of Adar II has begun, and the festival of Purim is barely more than a week away. Purim is, on the surface at least, a festival of fun and frivolity, filled with overwhelming joy at the survival of the Jewish people in the face of genocidal tyranny. The images of the holiday are playful ones--children in masks, noisemakers drowning out the name of hateful Haman, committed non-drinkers indulging in a bit of whiskey.
But let us not be fooled: Purim is an extremely serious holiday central to the theology and worldview of Judaism. If we understand Purim, we go a long way toward understanding what it means to see the world, and to act in it, as a Jew committed to a covenant with God.
The 19th-century Hasidic Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk is quoted as having told his students that "all of the holidays are included in Purim." On the face of it, this is a downright bizarre claim. What does Purim have to do with any other Jewish holiday, let alone with every other one?
Let us begin with Roah Hashanah and Passover. Each serves as a radical reminder that the status quo in which we find ourselves can be overturned. Rosh Hashanah tells us that no matter how entrenched our obstinacy and sinfulness, we can and must be different from what we have been until now. Passover tells us something similar about the communal and global levels: No matter how intractable current realities seem to be, they can and must be transformed to reflect God's vision for the world. Rosh Hashanah, we might say, is Passover for the individual person; Passover is Rosh Hashanah for the people. Each one offers testimony that another reality is possible, a reality in which human beings live in full dignity in the presence of God.
Lest we think that personal growth and global change are unconnected, Purim comes along and claims otherwise. Take Esther: an "average Jew" not renowned for her vast piety or abundant holiness. The story is well-known: Faced with the potential destruction of the Jewish people on the one hand and grave personal danger on the other, Esther rises to the occasion and acts with immense courage and, to put it somewhat delicately, unconventional religious aplomb. The opportunity to choose self-interest and comfort lies open to her. But with Mordecai's prodding, Esther chooses instead to stare reality in the face and to act to radically transform it. Here, one person's courage to do what God asks results in dramatic change on the level of global politics. By becoming more of who she is intended to be as an individual, Esther becomes a more significant and effective actor on the stage of world history.
The message here, I think, is that personal change has repercussions that reach far beyond the self. The Jewish people as a whole are saved by the single decision of one of its members. Judaism thus tells us loudly and clearly: Resist the temptation to divide the world into "politics" on the one hand and "spirituality" on the other. Bring the presence and the will of God into both. Purim thus represents the intertwining of Rosh Hashanah and Passover in the lives of real (not predictably heroic) people.
Turn for a moment to Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks. According to tradition, Shavuot commemorates the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. In an extremely striking image, the Talmud suggests that God held Mount Sinai over the heads of the Jewish people and proclaimed: "If you accept the Torah, well and good. But if not, here shall be your burial place." This is not exactly the stuff that respect for free will and a real relationship are made of, and the rabbis protest passionately. If this scenario accurately represents what happened at Sinai, one sage suggests, then the Torah and the covenant are totally invalid, since they were offered under duress.