Purim: On Excess 

by Sara Klugman, for All That’s Left

All That’s Left, a Jerusalem-based, anti-Occupation collective, has published For a Time Such as This: 5784 Purim Reader, a series of six essays  from left-wing Torah scholars sharing their thoughts on Purim in this dark time. Jewschool is proud to partner with ATL in publishing some of these essays. You can access the full reader here

Jerusalem is a costumed city everyday: a people of covered heads and submerged histories. The city wears multiple cloaks: names and histories of people layered on top of each other like shiva notices plastered on stone walls. Even in her nakedness – empty lots, green hills, khubeza flooded side streets– I find that the city often relays more of what is unsaid than what is spoken. During this war, I’ve felt how the costumes of Jerusalem’s residents raise new & urgent questions, calling attention to the violence of this moment. Did the 13 year old boy on the light rail with the knitted kippah attend the January rally for the Jewish resettlement of Gaza? Does the young woman wearing a hijab on my morning commute have family who is starving in Gaza? How does the huddle of young people at the protest wearing the image of another teenage girl –  still held hostage in Gaza – cope with the actions of a government that continuously chooses to disregard their friends’ life? 

As Purim approaches, it threatens to burst an already seamed landscape. It feels as though the chag seeks to usher this land to the edge of the cliff and urge, “yalla, go one step further.” And here it is, we’ve arrived: a precipitous tumble off the edge. 

This year, many of us have been asking each other– what will happen in the streets of Rafah, Jerusalem, of Nablus, of Tel Aviv? As Purim approaches, folks are rallying to bolster protective presence in the West Bank. Other friends across the land are planning to stay inside; some are leaving the country for the weekend. What further violence will be unveiled and then enacted? In a time of radical instability, why would we heed Purim’s call? And what exactly is the call? 

Purim has detailed and uncompromising demands on the Jewish people: it demands joy and excess. Purim asks for storytelling, revelry and feasts, it peddles in gifts to friends and gifts to the poor. These demands are concretized in the four essential mitzvot of Purim: to hear the Megillah, to have a festive meal, to give gifts to our friends, and to give gifts to the poor.  Strikingly, three of these four mitzvot are connected to a practice of obligatory generosity. The generosity is commanded in spheres of life: at our tables, the tables of our friends, and at the tables of those we do not know. In the face of the near annihilation of the Jews in our Purim story, our tradition says – more. More for you, for your people, more for those beyond your own table. 

This year’s Purim stands in the shadow of five months of bloodshed. In these months, Israel has tightened an already draconian siege on Gaza. Since the horrors of October 7th, Israel has restricted both the purchase and delivery of international aid – and closed all but two border crossings into Gaza. Since February, the average number of trucks crossing into Gaza has been restricted from the typical 500-600 to an average of 96 per day. If this limited aid is permitted to enter the Strip– it may be stopped or delayed by far right wing protests at the border, or delayed by the Israeli army. The situation is particularly grave for the 300,000 people still living in Northern Gaza, who are facing the acute risk of famine: the animal feed many have been subsisting on, too, is running out. According to current reporting, 576,000 people, that is around one fourth of all people in Gaza, are in danger of starvation. This humanitarian crisis is not despite, but is instead rooted in, state policy. Each day, the situation becomes more desperate. As we say during protests against the war in Gaza, before the signs are torn from our hands, “יש בני אדם בעזה” (there are humans beings in Gaza). And increasingly, they are starving. 

One quite justified way of facing Purim’s excess is a collective repugnance. What is the place for excess when people are starving under a military siege? In the face of deadly scarcity in Gaza, collective anger, confusion and dread are warranted. As we imagine a Purim in Jerusalem – an hour and a half from Gaza – how, if at all, can we understand a commandment towards ‘more’? 

Let us return to the details of this commanded generosity. The Mishneh Torah, a foundational code of Rabbinic law authored by Maimondes, discusses the obligation on Purim to give to poor people: “One is obligated to distribute charity to the poor on the day of Purim. At the very least, to give each of two poor people one present, be it money, cooked dishes, or other foods… i.e., two gifts to two poor people. We should not be discriminating in selecting the recipients of these Purim gifts. Instead, one should give to whomever stretches out his hand” (Mishneh TorahScroll of Esther Scroll of Esther and Hanukkah 2:16).

The Shulchan Arukh, a code of Jewish Law penned by Joseph Karo in 1563,  underlines the importance of giving on Purim to where there is great need. The text expands, “One is not exacting or so particular with their money on Purim. And in places where they have a custom to give even to non-Jews – one should give” (Orah Hayyim 694:3). The Mishnah Berurah, a commentary by Israel Meir Kagan written in Poland at the turn of the 20th century expands this, writing that “we also give gifts to non-Jews.” 

Our texts urge us: mark and rejoice on this day through giving freely, to whomever stretches out their hand.  

This year, Purim falls during Ramadan –  a holy month for millions of Muslim Palestinians living in this land. One of the traditional greetings is Ramadan Kareem, which translates to a “Generous Ramadan.” For many, ritual observance of Ramadan includes fasting: in order to bring the faithful near to gd, to draw lines of compassion and solidarity with those who are hungry, for the joy of sharing food. On Ramadan, the act of giving is also a religious obligation to give, with a focus on giving to the poor. A practice of being without, for a practice of giving more. This year, we have to also ask: what does a generous Ramadan look like in a besieged land?  How can we make sense of, respond to, and work with this ruin – and turn it towards generosity? 

Perhaps Purim has an answer: excess. Purim, on unsteady feet, commands us:  transform ruin through excess: of joy and of sustenance.  In this year’s somewhat cosmic collision of Purim and Ramadan, in the face of staggering tragedy in this land, of state-pushed starvation, these holy texts beg of us: be generous, remember the hungry, and turn towards collective joy. 

In Carla Bergman and Nick Montgomery’s work Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving in Toxic Times, they clarify the distinction between happiness and joy. To emphasize joy, in contrast to happiness, is to move away from conditioned habits, reactions, and emotions. Bubbling up in the cracks of Empire, joy remakes people through combat with forces of subjection. Joy is a desubjectifying process, an unfixing, an intensification of life itself. It is a process of coming alive and coming apart. Whereas happiness is used as a numbing anesthetic that induces dependence, joy is the growth of people’s capacity to do and feel new things, in ways that can break this dependence.” 

Last week, the Smol HaEmuni (“The Faithful Left”), a grassroots movement of self-identifying left-wing Israeli Jews across the religious spectrum, came out with a statement around the humanitarian crises in Gaza. They write, “A severe hunger caused by war, to the people living in a territory under our control and under our responsibility, is something that people with heart, ethics, and compassion cannot live with, in peace…`the days of our brutal enslavement in Egypt caused gd to command us, time and time again, not to behave towards others in the ways that they behaved towards us, after we learned, from experience, the horrors of torture” (my translation). 

This year, may Purim’s demand for excess – of joy, or food – unfix all from a mentality that seeks to destroy, to revenge and to starve. May we, as people of heart, do what is in our power to end the siege, to bring swift relief for the people of Gaza, and usher in another future for all people on this land. May Purim’s fierce and joyful muchness push us to collectively come apart from our old ways – and consequently, to come more alive. May the excess of Purim teach us that our capacity to be guided by generosity and care is not only central to our joy, but central to our survival as a people. In remembering to give to whomever stretches out their hand, let us remember our own hearts. 

Sara Klugman is an arts and Jewish educator, dancer, rabbinical student, and person committed to the sanctity of all life. She is currently based in Jerusalem.

All That’s Left is a Jerusalem-based collective unequivocally opposed to the Israeli Occupation and committed to building the Diaspora angle of resistance.

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