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.
Surprisingly, this theological crisis is solved by invoking Purim. A playful reading of a verse in the Book of Esther allows the rabbis to claim that the covenant was renewed at Purim--this time with no threatening mountain in sight. Thus, Purim replaces Shavuot as the holiday during which the eternal covenant of God and Israel is cemented.
But why? What is this mountain that threatens the Israelites and, thus, the integrity of the covenant itself? The Talmud, I think, is making a critical theological point. At Sinai, God seems to promise that Israel will be rewarded amply for doing the good and punished severely for going astray. But if this is the case, all we have here is self-interest and enforced obedience: I abstain from murder so that the land may produce its fill, and I observe Shabbat lest the rains cease. This is not exactly a lofty vision of relatedness and mutuality. Real covenant would entail the Jewish people doing God's will simply because it is God's will and recognizing that each mitzvah (commandment) is its own reward. Put simply, reward and punishment of the type seemingly promised by the Torah militate against covenant and commitment freely chosen. But God wants covenant and commitment freely chosen.
Hence Purim. We search in vain for a God who splits seas and appears in majestic glory over desert mountaintops. We encounter instead the real lives of real people in real time. Disaster appears imminent, and still no overt signs of divine intervention can be detected. The decree is averted, and the Jewish people saved--but still no incontrovertible appearances on God's part. A Jew may (ought, in fact) discern God at work in this redemptive unfolding, but she is not forced to do so. She may thank God for her (and our) salvation, but the rains will remain unaffected by her choices.
This, say the rabbis, is the ultimate covenantal moment: Esther, and we, are given the choice of doing God's will in the world or of turning our backs on God and God's aspirations. God still beckons us, but in a voice far less thunderous than the voice of Sinai and Shavuot. The opportunity lies before us for covenant and commitment freely chosen.
Perhaps that is why the Rabbis tell us that "when [the month of] Adar enters, we make abundant merriment." The deepest joy for a Jew, they seem to be telling us, is not to watch God thwart evil with dramatic interventions. The deepest joy, rather, is to do the will of God without thought of reward or punishment and to discover the hand of God in places where it appears to be absent. Standing at a split sea where redemption has occurred is an occasion for joy; living in a real world in which fidelity to the covenant narrowly averts disaster is an occasion for even greater joy.
Purim and Sukkot--the Festival of Booths--are the two holidays of joy in the Jewish year. Sukkot, uniquely, commemorates not a moment or an event, but a long, often painful journey embarked upon together, the years of wandering in the desert. Sukkot, therefore, is the biblical festival of continuous fidelity.
So if we seek to mark covenantal fidelity, why Purim rather than Sukkot?
We find a critical clue to the answer, I think, in this week's Torah portion. As the building of the Tabernacle is completed, we learn that God's presence filled the Tabernacle so tangibly that Moses could not even enter the tent of meeting (Exodus 40:35).
One can only imagine the power and grandeur of this scene. But that is precisely the point: For the rabbis of the Talmud (and, it goes without saying, for us), the presence of God is far less obviously manifest than it was in the Tabernacle. God's presence is more subtle, even elusive, and it must be searched for and sought after. If we look hard enough, we can find it. And looking hard is the message of Purim rather than Sukkot.
The Kotzker Rebbe's dramatic claim begins to make sense after all. Purim teaches us, first, that the personal and communal-global are inextricably intertwined, and that the Torah's goal is the transformation and betterment of both (Rosh Hashanah and Passover). It reminds us, second, that real covenantal commitment becomes possible precisely in a world in which God's presence must be discerned rather than punitively experienced (Shavuot).
And it tells us, finally, that real joy is born in mutuality and commitment rather than in utter dependence and passivity (Sukkot). All the holidays are included in Purim.