The story of Purim, a holiday commemorating the discovery and defeat of an antisemitic conspiracy, is set in ancient Persia and features defiant Queen Vashti, bumbling King Ahashverosh, righteous Mordechai, brave Esther, and evil Haman (boo!). The word Purim means “lots”, as in “lottery” because of the lots Haman (boo!) drew to pick a date on which to kill the Jews. In addition to the practice of Matanot la’evyonim (giving gifts to the poor), Mishloach manot (sending packages to friends), Kriat megillah (reading the Book of Esther) and a Seudah (a festive meal), it is customary to celebrate with a masquerade.
Don’t worry, it is indeed Erev Yom Kippur 5782. You have not tuned into Yom Kippur services to discover that you have traveled back or forward in time and are at the opposite end of the year. I did consider putting on a costume to really throw you off … I imagine you weren’t expecting to hear about Purim on Yom Kippur. But our tradition asserts a kinship between these two seeming opposites.
It begins linguistically, as much of rabbinic creativity does. A key biblical source from Leviticus refers to Yom Kippur as “Yom haKippurim.” The word Kipur is from L’chaper — to atone — so Yom haKippurim would be the day of atonements, the plural. But the rabbis notice that Yom haKippurim sounds a lot like “Purim” — since the Hebrew prefix “k” means “like” they read Yom haKippurim as “a day that is like Purim.” The mystics of the Zohar take this relationship one step further. They teach that the holiday of cathartic rejoicing “is called “Purim” because of Yom HaKippurim, for, in the future, people will rejoice on Yom Kippur, and will transform its required afflictions to delight.”
The Talmud claims that every Yom tov, every holiday, is ½ for G!d and ½ for you — prayer and learning for G!d, celebrating and feasting for us. But the Vilna Gaon asserts that since Purim is all rejoicing and Yom Kippur is all prayer and learning, that combined they make one holy time. They are essentially two sides of the same coin. Midrash Mishlei declares that both Purim and Yom Kippur will be the only holidays practiced in Olam Haba, in the World to Come. On the face of it, we might have an easier time understanding that Yom Kippur would continue in the World to Come. Purim, though? How could this holiday that centers levity and mischief hold the same importance as our holiest day of the year? Rambam says that in the messianic age, the only books to survive will be the five Books of Moses (the Torah) and the Book of Esther. The tradition seems to be saying that there is something about purim which will never not be true.
The story of Purim is farcical, absurd, meant to confuse and disorient us. The great modern commentator Avivah Zornberg points out that:
“One of the laws governing the reading of the Megillah states that it may not be read l’mafrei’a— out of order, or backward. That is, if one changes the “meaningless” order of events, so as to construct a more “meaningful” plot, one has not fulfilled the mitzvah, the obligation of reading the Megillah on Purim. Time cannot be reversed; the text is read kikhtavam u-kizmanam, in sequential order, in all its frustrating disorganization.”
Another central theme of Purim is the idea of reversals of expectation and fortune. We learnt that the core meaning of Purim is “va-nafoch-hu”—everything is turned upside down.
My teacher R. Sharon Cohen Anisfeld embodies this by actually standing on her head several times on Purim. It is rumored that the kibbutz I studied on during college practices this by swinging — going home from the annual Purim party with someone other than their spouse. Nahafochu — we turn the world on its head. The rabbis interpret the commandment to experience joy as an imperative to drink alcohol. How much? Until the smell of wine emanates from you. Until up is down and left is right. Ad lo yada — Until you can’t tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman.
The last in-person gathering many of us attended before the pandemic, before the world as we knew it was turned upside down, was Detroit Jews for Justice’s Purim party. People were starting to talk about this new virus, but only the very prescient among us were getting worried and staying home (I’m looking at you, Roz). So we put out hand sanitizer and special signs encouraging folks to wash their hands and we went on with our festivities: costume contest, spiel in which Esther defeats white supremacy, a pitch for Cosecha’s campaign to ensure drivers licenses for undocumented folks and a dance party. It was a matter of days before the shutdown. We hurtled into a global pandemic featuring social turmoil, economic upheaval, government ineptitude and mass death. Sounds a lot like the Book of Esther to me.
It was the hardest time I’ve experienced in my rabbinate. Communities know how to function when someone or even many someones are in need — but how do we function when every single person is experiencing some level of crisis? I threw myself into caring for my family, my staff and the congregation. I drowned out any existential angst with spreadsheets and whiteboards that managed childcare schedules, community care calls and efficient cooking rotations.
But by early spring, my seasonal affective disorder was in full swing and my discipline started to crumble. If I wasn’t sleeping, I was working. Our six-month old was still waking up throughout the night and time was beginning to lose meaning. It was a good day if I brushed my teeth before noon or was wearing different clothes than the ones I’d slept in. Purim this year functioned as the one year anniversary of the ongoing pandemic – a milestone very few of us expected to arrive. This milestone was for me, as it was for many people, an escalation of emotional distress. Sometime after I zoomed into Megillah reading, it became clear that something was wrong. What ensued was, effectively, a days-long panic attack. Purim within Purim was too much for me. Things were already upside-down. Upside-down within the upside-down was like entering a different dimension.
It is a great irony that Purim has become a holiday focused on delighting children, when it may actually be the most terrifying thing we’ve got. We get wild because it's unbearable to actually face the truth that we were almost wiped out. We were this close! Is life truly so capricious? And where the hell was G!d anyway? One midrash, or rabbinic expansion on a biblical verse, imagines that on the first day of her fast, Esther cries out “Eili - my G!d!”, on the second she cried “Eili - My G!d!”, and on the third day she cried passionately, “Eili, Eili lamah azavtani?? —My G!d, my G!d, why have You abandoned me?” In her despair, she channels the words of the Psalm 22, demanding that G!d not hide Her face — that G!d answers when we call. But the silence is absolute. The brutal truth of Purim is that the world is random — more often than not, G!d is absent, or at least hidden. Perhaps this is the truth that the rabbis claim will be with us always.
We have been living in a state of Purim for the last year and a half. The artifice is stripped away — the constant errands, the commutes, the social obligations, the rituals of presentability, suddenly disappearing — calling into question why we lived that way anyway. Is the pandemic bizarre? Or is this the most real thing we’ve ever experienced?
As many explore the relevance of “apocalypse” to this moment, thinkers are pointing out that the word “apocalyptic” in Greek is not about destruction, rather it means “unveiling.” In the ways that Purim’s veiling is actually an unveiling, our distance from life before reveals truths we can no longer ignore. This global crisis has laid bare the gross inequities at every level of society. Not long after Trump’s inauguration, Adrienne Maree Brown reflected,
Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.
Those of us in Detroit are not new to this concept — we often talk about how the post-apocalyptic landscape here tells the truth of the unsustainability of racialized capitalism. Thus many of us resent Quicken Loans’ attempts to cover up these truths with cheap paint. We must not confuse short- or even medium-term fixes for the change we need — unseating Trump, distribution of a vaccine, or even the Green New Deal, will not save us, important though they may be.
This is scary. And it's okay to be scared. Esther shows us how to be afraid and act courageously anyway. When I lifted the veil off my own unwellness this past Purim, I experienced a surprising sense of calm. When I was drinking wine and eating ice cream at 6:00 that morning, I made a list of all the tools at my disposal for rebalancing my nervous system. The extremity of the experience offered a welcome clarity: I was not okay. But I know what to do when I am not okay. We are not okay. The Jewish people, the global community, our species. We are not safe from each other or from ourselves. What was already apparent to some of us, is now clear to all of us — the pandemic has given us the painful gift of this clarity.
Purim knows this truth — and so Purim gives us the key to our collective healing. There are four mitzvahs associated with Purim: Matanot la’evyonim (giving gifts to the poor), Mishloach manot (sending packages to friends), Kriat megillah (reading the Book of Esther) and a Seudah (a festive meal). The tradition offers us four strategies towards thriving through the unveiling.
- Matanot la’evyonim: We must read as justice, a relentless commitment to the process of systemic change.
- Mishloach manot stands for Gemilut Chesed, the practices of mutual aid and community care.
- With the imperative to hear Megilah we are reminded of the critical importance of studying history and the wisdom of our ancestors.
- And with Seudah, the obligation of a festive meal, the tradition insists that we make a practice of experiencing pleasure.
Justice, mutual aid, education, and pleasure — this is the roadmap.
So here we are, observing Yom Kippur within Purim — Yom Kippur sh’b’Purim. Suddenly these two opposites, typically safely halfway across the year from each other, are colliding — offering truths that may have been inaccessible before.
What tools have you gained or sharpened during this time that can help you with the part of teshuvah/repentance that is the work of uncovering? It's not the lifting of the veil that is dangerous— what’s dangerous is to turn away from uncomfortable and scary truths: about ourselves, about our world. We can be present with what’s real.
In what ways are you more awake now than you were a year and a half ago? And how can entering the alternate universe of this sacred day call you into even deeper consciousness?
May our feasting and our fasting, our distance and our closeness, our masking and our nakedness challenge and sustain us — allowing us to “hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” Gmar Chatimah Tovah — May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.