“Purim: Serious Fun”
By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Yiddish, in many sectors of the Jewish community, is a dying language. This is a pity because of the many pearls of wisdom that are contained in Yiddish stories and folk songs.
One such song has these words:
Haynt iz Purim
Morgen iz oys
Gib mir a groschen
Und varft mir aroys.
Today is Purim
Tomorrow it is over
Give me a nickel
And throw me out.
For me, this ditty always conveyed the notion that Purim was a fleeting and atypical experience. Here today, gone tomorrow, so take advantage of it while you can.
No question about it. There is a carnival-like atmosphere to Purim; an unrestrained celebration which we allow ourselves but once a year. It is over quickly, and then we return to a more sober reality. For one day, we celebrate the fact that we avoided genocide. We are wildly happy, we feast, drink perhaps a bit too much, put on garish costumes, and play games of disguise.
All this is certainly one aspect of Purim. Celebrate joyously, discard constraint, express yourself with abandon. But just for one day. Then Purim is oys, over. There is, however, another perspective on Purim, which is not at all transitory or temporary. There is a counter-theme that is well expressed by our sages’ insistence that even if all other Jewish festivals will no longer be celebrated, Purim will last forever. There is an eternal aspect to Purim.
As joyous as Purim is, there is a solemn side to it as well which is expressed by the observation made by the Kabbalists so long ago, that Yom Kippur is called Yom HaKippurim, a day like Purim. The most somber and awe-filled day of the Jewish calendar in some way resembles the zaniest one.
How are we to understand that?
The answer lies in the very nature of the celebration. We celebrate survival, plain and simple physical survival. For that, wild abandon and unbridled joy are appropriate first reactions. But soon thereafter, we must ask ourselves: “Survival for what? What higher purpose must we achieve? What higher objectives must we strive for, now that we have, by the grace of God, survived? Surely we didn’t merit survival just to throw a wild party!”
Purim contains another message, and that is as a day that we freely accepted upon ourselves the Torah, which we were previously coerced into accepting. The original acceptance of the Torah on Mount Sinai, our sages tell us, took place under duress. The Almighty, as it were, held the mountain over our heads and threatened us, “Either accept the Torah or this mountain will be your grave!”
On Purim, we went beyond that. The Torah was now appreciated as something we really want, as the very reason for our survival. And so, part of Purim is not just “feasting and joy.” It is a rededication to a higher cause, a more mature understanding of why the Torah is necessary.
In a certain sense, many of us today have accepted the Torah under coercion. We were forced into Torah observance because that is how we were brought up. We were raised to accept it and given no choice in the matter. Alternatively, we want to fit in with a certain group of people and, to do so, must conform to the Torah’s ways.
Purim demands that we reflect upon the importance of Torah study and Torah observance without compulsion, and in a freer fashion. When we identify with the Purim story, and with all too numerous subsequent similar stories of survival, we find ourselves asking, “Survival for what?” And then each of us finds his or her own answer, and that answer cannot but involve, in some way, a rededication, a reacceptance, a new relationship, with the Torah of old.
When the Jews emerged victorious from their would-be murderers, they all experienced “light and joy, gaiety and dignity.” No doubt, part of the Purim experience was and is “joy and gaiety” with all the manifestations that those emotions entail. But the Purim experience also must involve “light and dignity”, the light of spirituality and wisdom, and the dignity of a life of meaning and purpose.
To you, I wish a happy Purim of the first kind and a happy Purim of the second kind. Enjoy both the simcha and the ohr, the joy and the light. The joy of festive celebration, and the light of commitment and renewal.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.