By Harriet P. Gross
The Gallimaufry Lady, my Catholic friend in Arkansas, has sent me a Purim prayer. It came too late for me to pass on before the holiday last weekend. But instead of saving this tidbit — and some others — until next year, here they are now. Let’s look ahead and enrich the way we’ll see the celebration when it comes around again.
The prayer arrived just in time for me to pray on Purim. It began with instructions to first read Esther 4:13 — the part where Mordecai tells his cousin, now the queen, that she won’t have a better fate than any other Jew if she doesn’t use her exalted status to step in and save her people from Haman’s nefarious plot. It’s to be offered for Esther and other women who need guidance in difficult situations (and don’t we all, at least from time to time?)
“Dear God, help this woman to live life to the fullest, to excel above her expectations, to shine in the darkest places. Protect her at all times, lift her up when she needs You the most, and let her know that when she walks with You, she will always be safe.”
I like this because it’s down-to-earth and real, while we most often think of Purim as fanciful and theatrical, with carnivals and costumes and outrageous behavior, including overindulgence in strong drink and the outside possibility that if we eat enough poppy-seed hamantaschen, we might fail a drug test.
Taking Purim itself seriously can inspire a lot of serious thought. One example: The late Sephardic Rabbi Haim David Halevy opined that all the Jews in the 127 provinces of King Ahasuerus’s empire knew their Queen was Jewish, but not a single one gave away the secret. That’s amazing enough to be the “miracle” underlying the holiday.
And in his commentary several years ago, our own community rabbi, Howard Wolk, cited some other rabbinic sources that actually make comparisons between Purim and Yom Kippur — in reverse. Such as: on Purim we feast, but we fast the day before, while on the Day of Atonement we fast, but it’s a mitzvah to feast the day before. And on Purim we masquerade — some as characters in the holiday story, others in unrelated costumes — but on Yom Kippur, some of us also “masquerade” as Jews, Rabbi Wolk reminds us, by going to synagogue for this one day only, in the entire year.
And maybe there’s a relationship between the names? Does PURim, the festival containing the word for the lot-casting that Haman used to set his Jew-annihilating date, have something in common with Yom KipPUR, when our fates are sealed for the coming year?
My own question about Purim is the one posed by God’s instruction that we should blot out the name of Amalek, Haman’s ancestor who attacked the weakest Jews after they crossed the Red Sea, while remembering it forever. How can we do both at the same time? How is it possible not to remember Haman as we’re working so hard to drown out the sound of his name during the Megillah reading?
This year, Rabbi Shawn Zell warned his Tiferet Israel congregants that as Jews, we must always beware of benevolent rulers. “The Jews of Esther and Mordecai’s Shushan were hallucinating if they thought the open society that prevailed with Ahasuerus as king was a guarantee they had absolutely nothing to worry about,” he said; “Even an all-accepting monarch often has a ‘Haman’ lurking about. To think otherwise is delusional … ”
Which reminds me to remind Rabbi Zell and all of you to read “The Dwarf,” a brief novel by Par Lagerkvist, Sweden’s 1951 Nobel Prize winner for literature. A mini-monster in joker’s cap and bells, the title figure in this little book undermines a kingdom and then, when his work there is done, moves on to another, assuring us — as he does so matter-of-factly at the end of the story — that “Every king needs his dwarf.” An excellent cautionary tale for pre-Purim reading, even (or maybe especially) this far in advance of next Purim.