I love Purim, and here’s why: it’s a festival of contradictions. This is true of many if not all our Jewish holy days, but even more so at Purim. And I like it that way: life is messy and complex; why would we pretend otherwise in our most sacred moments? Wonderful fun for children juxtaposed with a bawdy text much more appropriate for adults; a story that never once mentions God, yet all but demands that we consider our own relationship with God; a festival of masques, an opportunity to conceal the face we usually show the world and to try on different roles, that, when enjoyed with the proper intention, helps us to unlock forgotten or hidden aspects of our personality, revealing us to ourselves. An occasion for prescribed mayhem and debauchery, it is nevertheless stringent in its demands of us, asking us: who are you, really? What is most important to you? For what cause or value would you—like Vashti, like Mordecai, like Esther—willingly risk everything? Your home, your community, your very life?
Recently columnist and blogger Harold Berman in The Times of Israel criticized Reform Judaism for “an approach that has replaced obligation with personal autonomy as its overarching value”; in other words, he charges, Reform Judaism never asks us to make any personal sacrifices for the sake of the community. Though I would respectfully disagree that Reform Judaism makes no rigorous demands of us, Berman does identify a real phenomenon in Reform Jewish life: we are often not inclined to inconvenience ourselves for the sake of Judaism, the Jewish community, and the values we claim to uphold.
We live full, demanding lives, and we like to believe we can have it all: secular success and spiritual fulfillment, conviction without inconvenience, family and career, work-life balance. Sometimes we can. But what would happen if we, like Esther, like Vashti, like Mordecai—even like Ahashverosh in the end—were forced to choose between our comfortable, everyday faces, standard operating procedures, and our deepest values? Is it enough to give as much tzedakah as feels good, or must we give beyond the point of comfort to truly repair the world? Is it enough to light the Shabbat candles when it is convenient, or must we discipline ourselves to make it a regular practice, even when it might cut into other plans, or require us to make what is usually a private family ritual more public than we might prefer? Do we miss holiday observances because the rest of the world does not stop working or going to school? Or do we make arrangements and sacrifices to be with our community, to practice the rituals and customs from which our values flow? In each case, what is lost, and what is gained?
In the Scroll of Esther, again and again, characters surprise us. The passive, beautiful Esther turns out to have a steely commitment to her people. Ahashverosh, a king without convictions, ends up doing the right thing—more than once! Each one of us has more than one dimension to our character, and to our Judaism. Purim gives us a safe space to try on unaccustomed roles, uncomfortable practices. In fact, it challenges us to uncover and explore our own contradictions. Which is the mask, which is truly us?
This Purim, may we have the courage to explore some of these tensions, to test the limits of the different aspects of our identities, to figure out what’s most important to us, to discover the cost of comfort and the strength of our convictions. Chag sameach—may your Purim be hilarious, joyful, affirming of family and Jewish values. And may it make you a little uncomfortable. And may it change you, deeply.