Purim is finally coming — with two Adars it has been a wait but, as many of us do, we wait until the last minute to get ready. What does getting ready for Purim look like? Purim is a wonderful holiday to involve children and yet not forget the adults!! There are four specific Purim mitzvot that give us things to do and think about on so many levels.
Top of your list should be shalach manot — giving gifts of food to friends and family. This is a wonderful mitzvah because it tastes good and the rules are pretty simple: nice container, two different kinds of food — with hamantaschen nice but not essential (well, maybe?) — and then deliver it. This mitzvah is fun and easy! Most important is that it is very hands-on and everyone in the family can, and should, be involved.
Next mitzvah is to give tzedakah, which is also easy as there are so many needs, but doing it specifically for Purim gives us the chance to think deeply about where the need is greatest today and what the messages of the holiday may help us choose. It is easy to send money, but we all learn when we decide as a family where the priorities are for each of us today.
The favorite mitzvah is, of course, the party — which is a requirement! We are supposed to celebrate, and the tradition of dressing up in costume is the best part (although some would say the food at the party is the most important). Thinking about why we wear costumes for the holiday is also important — we are remembering that Esther had to hide her Jewishness. This is another opportunity for talking together about hiding parts of who you are.
The fourth mitzvah is to hear the story — the WHOLE Megillah! This is done in synagogues in many ways, from hearing it all in Hebrew to Purim productions using contemporary music. You have time now to read the Book of Esther alone or with others and really study it before the holiday. The Jewish way of study is all about reading interpretations along with the actual text, and interpretations abound. This is my chance to recommend a new book: “Esther in America,” edited by Rabbi Dr. Stuart W. Halpern. Halpern begins the introduction telling how on Sept. 7, 1853, Sojourner Truth spoke at the Women’s Rights Convention saying: “…Queen Esther come forth, for she was oppressed, and felt there was a great wrong, and she said I will die or I will bring my complaint before the king. Should the king of the United States be greater, or more crueler, or more harder?” The chapters by different authors take us through Esther in Early America to Feminist and Pop Culture to Presidential Politics. Remember — Purim may be lots of fun for the kids, but we must always continue learning and challenging ourselves to think and grow!
Finally, Purim is all about courage and standing up for people who are being oppressed and in need. The value of ometz lev — courage — is key to the holiday. The Hebrew translates as “strength of heart” and this adds a special dimension to being brave. Here are a few sections from an article titled “Giving Ourselves Permission to Take Risks” by Elizabeth Jones (2002). The article was written primarily for early childhood but it is really a message for all of us.
“Courage, as we’ve learned from the Cowardly Lion, is a virtue that is hard to sustain. New experiences are often scary; we don’t know what will happen next or what we should do. Yet all new learning involves risk. We learn by doing — and by thinking about the past and the future.
“Risk is inevitable; it’s a requirement for survival. The challenge is to name it, practice it, enjoy the rush of mastery, and bear the pain when pain is the outcome.
“A child who climbs may fall. But a child who never climbs is at much greater risk. Fall surfaces under climbers aren’t there to prevent falls, only to make them less hard. And hugging doesn’t make the pain go away, but it does make it more bearable.”
Now think of each of these quotes in relation to Esther’s bravery. What would you have done? Was her plan a good one? A risky one? A brave one? Think and have a great Purim.
Laura Seymour is Camp director emeritus and Jewish Experiential Learning director at the Aaron Family JCC.