WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING
PARASHAT TAV-ZAKHOR-PURIM: 2011/5771
PURIM: THE CELEBRATION OF ABSURDITY
Purim is one of the most light-hearted periods of the Jewish year, the only occasion on which we are encouraged to befuddle our thinking processes by imbibing alcohol to excess. However, its noisy, playful celebration notwithstanding, Purim’s message is of breathtaking profundity.
Our sages were aware of this profundity in their comment that Purim raises the perplexing problem of the eclipse of God [hester Panim] at critical times in Jewish history. Our mystics were certainly aware of its special significance when they called the holiest day of the year, Yom ha- Kippurim [the Day of Atonement], Yom ke-Purim [a day like Purim]. Our ancient wise men must have noted something extraordinary about Purim when they commented, eschatologically, that Jews would, in future times, celebrate Purim even though other festivals might no longer be observed.
On the face of it, the importance accorded to Purim is difficult to understand. Ours is a rational faith, and Purim reflects the predominance of the irrational. Consider the Purim story: One day a proud and beautiful Persian woman is Queen; the next day she is beheaded—apparently for refusing to parade her beauty in public. A humble, modest, unknown Jewish girl is under the tutelage of her uncle, a man of uncompromising religious zeal and piety. Paradoxically, by parading her beauty, she becomes the wife of the Emperor— who a gentile to boot. The Jews of the realm receive recognition for their economic and social contributions to the body politic. Suddenly, for no sound reason, this most productive segment of the population is singled out for total annihilation. Mordechai sits in sackcloth and ashes, awaiting his hanging and the extermination of his people, but the Emperor suffers a night of sleeplessness, the Queen throws a party, and the situation is reversed. Marked for extinction, the Jewish people again rise to greatness. Paradox follows upon paradox, absurdity chases absurdity in the Purim narrative. A single phrase—ve-nahafoch hu—(it was topsy-turvy)—is its most appropriate characterization.
It is perhaps for this very reason that Purim is the most "Jewish" of all our holidays. The phrase ve-nahafoch hu can fairly be applied to every collective petition of our daily amidah prayer. What other people is there, driven from its homeland, its dispersion growing increasingly greater over a period of two thousand years, which could absurdly declare thrice daily: "Praised art thou, 0 Lord, who [now] gathers together the scattered ones of His people Israel?" Could another rational community, facing almost perpetual injustice on account of its faith, daily proclaim: "Praised art thou, Lord, who loves justice and righteousness?" Is there another people, which, confronted by two millennia of success by its arrogant oppressors, could daily declare: "Praised art thou O Lord, who smashes [our] enemies and humbles [our] arrogant oppressors?" For two thousand years the Temple lay in ruins and the holy places of Jerusalem continued to be desecrated. Yet with characteristic, absurd faith we thrice daily proclaimed: "Praised art thou, 0 Lord, who is [now] rebuilding Jerusalem."
Paradox and absurdity characterize our theology as well as our liturgy. We believe in the principle of free will. This implies that we should accept the consequences of our conscious actions--reward for meritorious deeds and punishment for deliberate transgressions. Notwithstanding, almost absurdly, we believe that, on Yom Kippur, sincere penitence reverses the effects of deliberate transgression and nullifies their consequences. No wonder Yom ha-Kippurim has been compared to Purim!
Paradox in liturgy and theology parallel paradox in Jewish history. No other nation returned to its homeland after two thousand years of exile. Ve-nahafoch hu. No other people, subjected to unparalleled genocide, could arise, phoenix like, from ashes of the crematoria and establish a new commonwealth. Ve-nahafoch hu. Never did our people suffer hester Panim more than during the holocaust. Never was there a greater reason for a crisis of faith than then. Ve-nahafoch hu. In the new State of Israel, old centers of Torah were transplanted, and new centers established to meet the new situation. Torah flourishes once again.
Purim personifies our people's history and its hopes. This is why, whatever is decreed for the distant, eschatological future, we shall always celebrate this festival.