A sobering Purim

A sobering Purim

Cemeteries desecrated. Schools and JCCs evacuated. Communitywide rallies. It has been a tense time for Jews across the United States, perhaps none more so than the Jews of Philadelphia. One word captures the mood of recent days: vulnerability.

What is particularly unusual about this experience is its coincidence with the month of Adar and the upcoming holiday of Purim. The timing, after all, seems ill-fitting. The rabbis teach that “when Adar enters, we increase in joyousness.” We celebrate Purim as arguably the most festive of Jewish holidays. Granted, as part of our commemoration, we recall the Jews’ initial anxiety upon hearing of Haman and Achashveirosh’s genocidal decree. Ultimately, however, our salvation was secured, and, in the Megillah’s words, “for the Jews there was light, joy, rejoicing and delight.” Fear and anxiety seem to have no place in this jubilant month.

There is, however, an altogether different reading of the Purim story. This approach begins with a basic observation regarding the joy of Purim: It is imprecise to call Purim a holiday of happiness. For only the three holidays of pilgrimage — Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot — are described as times of simchah, joy. Purim, by contrast, is depicted in Jewish law as a time of mishteh, feasting.

While the difference between these two terms might seem merely semantic, in fact they are quite different. Joy denotes an inner experience of happiness, whereas feasting refers not to inner joy but an external show of eating and celebration. Indeed, the lack of inwardness of Purim’s festivities is underscored by the custom of wearing masks and costumes, which draw attention to the discrepancy between our inner experience and outer presentation.

How exactly are we to understand this discrepancy, and what does it reflect about the nature of the upcoming holiday? The great 20th-century Talmudist and philosopher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, explained that despite appearances to the contrary, Purim is not a fully joyous day. Our outward celebration, while genuine, masks the anxiety that simultaneously lies beneath the surface of our smiling veneer. While we celebrate having dodged a bullet, we recognize that we are far from out of the woods. After all, although the Jews had successfully averted the threat of genocide, supreme optimism in the future was unwarranted. Despite Esther and Mordechai’s considerable political influence, there was no guarantee that the capricious Achashveirosh would not be swayed again to issue another decree against the embattled nation. Indeed, the Talmud makes precisely this point, claiming that we do not recite the joyous Hallel prayer on Purim, because “we are still the servants of Achashveirosh.”

Similarly, in the third-to-last verse of the Megillah, Achashveirosh imposes a tax on his empire, as if to imply that he reigned supreme at the story’s conclusion. This hardly could have been comforting to the Persian Jewish community. That the Jews, on the Megillah’s testimony, were required to fend off some 75,800 enemies in self-defense, further implies that anti-Semitic attitudes were deep-seated in the Persian empire. This reinforces the mix of relief and anxiety that characterized the Jewish community as the curtain closed on the Megillah’s storyline.

This radically different reading of Purim accounts for a number of other anomalies. Some medieval authorities maintained that we continue to recite the supplicatory Tachanun prayer on Purim. This is quite unusual, as we generally omit Tachanun on holidays. Apparently, Purim is not a day of unadulterated joy. Indeed, in light of the vulnerability motif, Tachanun seems almost appropriate.

This also explains a puzzling rabbinic passage. The Talmud notes that Purim is unusual in that we read the Megillah twice, not just once as we might have expected. The first explanation cited in the Talmud invokes a passage in Psalms which, according to tradition, alludes to Esther’s heroics as savior of the Jewish people.

What is unexpected is the proof text’s dour tone: “O my God, I call by day but You do not answer; and at night, and there is no cessation for me” (Psalms 22:3). This verse depicts a desperate plea, not celebration! Apparently, the recitation of the Megillah is intended not only as a celebration of the miraculous victory but also as a sobering reminder of our vulnerabilities.

Indeed, Rabbi Soloveitchik noted that inner anxiety is not particular to the Purim story; it is a fundamental human condition. Despite humanity’s stunning capacity to conquer and achieve, we remain, at our core, deeply insecure. We constantly dwell on our past, present and future. We are uncertain what tomorrow will bring. Prayer, at its core petitionary in nature, is rooted in the profound uncertainty of the human condition. Purim is merely the day on which we most directly confront this underlying tension that is endemic to the human condition.

When I first encountered this sobering reading of Purim, frankly I found it unlikely, even disappointing. Why ruin the fun of a perfectly happy holiday? It seemed that Rabbi Soloveitchik, if you will, was being a Talmudic killjoy. This year, however, as I reflected on Adar and our current anxieties, I found this rendering of Purim most relevant and prescient. This Adar, more than any in recent memory, our safety has felt especially precarious.

Thankfully, there has been “salvation” and, despite threats, no lives have been lost. And despite the unconscionable desecration of our sacred cemeteries, including the Mount Carmel cemetery in Philadelphia, friends from many faiths and all walks of life, including elected officials, have reached out to lend a helping hand.

Still, we are on edge. Schools, synagogues and community centers are making sure to perfect their emergency plans. Despite the extraordinary support we have received from so many, we remain vulnerable.

This year, in other words, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s reading of Purim feels just right.

Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky is rosh beit midrash of Kohelet Yeshiva High School outside of Philadelphia.