Rabbi Joseph Berman at a demonstration for immigration rights
Justice, Religion

Joy as Insurrection: Purim #TorahForTheResistance

This piece of Purim #TorahForTheResistance is part of a series written by young rabbis, rabbinical and religious students about Jewish resistance to Trump through the lens of faith, Judaism, and spirituality. Read more resistance here.

[pullquote align=right] Given this destructive component of the holiday, how can I love Purim?
[/pullquote]Purim is, without a doubt, my favorite holiday. This surprises some of my friends — many of whom struggle with Purim — because it can be read as a celebration of violence. After the wicked Haman succeeds in establishing a date for the annihilation of the Jews, his plans are foiled by the heroine Esther and her uncle Mordecai. The foolish King, claiming he can not overturn the planned genocide, instead grants the Jews authority to kill their enemies. According to the text they slaughter more than 75,000 people. The commemoration of this event becomes the festival of Purim. In our time, Purim — along with the biblical command to blot out Amalek — has served as inspiration for settler violence against Palestinians including the 1994 Hebron Massacre when Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinian Muslims in the Cave of the Patriarchs.(1) Given this destructive component of the holiday, how can I love Purim?
Judaism contains voices and strands of xenophobia, misogyny, and violence. We must grapple with and confront these pieces of our tradition and their manifestations within ourselves. Judaism also contains voices and strands of love and compassion along with the tools to help us move towards healing, wholeness, and liberation. And so Purim is my favorite holiday, because while it can be read as a celebration of violence, it can also be understood and practiced to have the opposite effect. In fact, I believe that Purim can serve to help us transform ourselves and the world around us.
According to the mystics, Purim is actually one of the holiest holidays. The foundational text of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, understands Purim and Yom Kippur to be similar.(2) (The connection begins with a play on words, for Yom Kippur is also called by the name Yom HaKippurim, which can be translated as “The day that is like Purim”) This statement begs the question, how are Purim and Yom Kippur alike? On the surface they are opposites! Yom Kippur is marked by self-denial, Purim by excess. Yom Kippur is somber, Purim is raucous. The list goes on…
[pullquote align=left] On Purim, the work of teshuva takes place through simcha.
[/pullquote]Years ago I discovered a text by the Sefat Emet,(3) a late 19th century hasidic rabbi in Poland, who explained that the central similarity is that both holidays focus on the spiritual work of teshuva (returning to God/our truest selves). When I first came upon the text, I was confounded. The Sefat Emet explains the familiar concept that teshuva on Yom Kippur happens through “affliction.” This translates into fasting, prayer, introspection, processing, and seeking and giving forgiveness. That’s clear. The Sefat Emet then asserts that on Purim, the work of teshuva takes place through simcha — joy, happiness, and celebration. For a long time I understood the words but struggled to grasp the concept. How does one do teshuva on Purim through joy, happiness, and celebration?
After many years of diligent Purim observance, I’ve just begun to understand the concept of Purim teshuva. One component of Purim teshuva is linked to the basic experience of joy. Celebration in the context of community can itself be healing. We give mishloach manot (care packages) to friends, dress up in costume, eat, and drink. Connecting with others through smiles, laughter, feasting, and dancing can go a long way in helping us feel more whole and less alone. As Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope In the Dark, “Joy is itself an insurrectionary force against the dreariness and dullness and isolation of everyday life.” (4)
A second aspect of Purim teshuva comes from the way that drinking and costumes in particular can lead us to see and experience ourselves and the world around us differently. The Talmud says one should get so drunk that they can’t distinguish between the hero Mordecai and the villain Haman.(5) Combine this with the practice of pretending to be something or someone you are not, and you end up with a sacred destabilization of reality.(6)
[pullquote align=right] We are in desperate need of fun and joy to sustain us for the struggles ahead
[/pullquote]My favorite way to pick a costume is connected to the ideas of hiding and revealing. Esther hid her Jewish identity to become queen and then revealed her Jewishness in order to save her people. God is also hidden in the story, as there is not one mention of the Divine in Megillat Esther. To play with these themes, I like to focus in on some aspect of myself that lies hidden, just below the surface. Many years ago I was an angry activist. On other occasions my costumes have explored Jewish masculinities a few steps from my own. For the past few years I’ve been a chasidic rebbe filled with love, joy, dancing and singing. When I get into character — and I highly recommend getting into character — I discover something new and useful about myself. I walk away with insights about who I do and don’t want to be and a bit of direction for a new stage of growth.
If you’re someone who has trouble with Purim, I hope this year you’ll give it a shot. Not to ignore the violent aspects of the holiday, but to also seek out the ways that Purim can lead to growth,change, and healing. And besides, we are in desperate need of fun and joy to sustain us for the struggles ahead. To again quote Rebecca Solnit, “When you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.” So go have some fun!

(1) For more on the violence of Purim both past and present, check out The Dark Side of Purim by Shaul Magid.
(2) Tikunei HaZohar, Tikkun 21, 57:2
(3) Purim 5637 (1877)
(4) On the theme of Purim and Joy, see also Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari’s Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
(5) BT Megilah 7b. This is directly followed by a story that seems to moderate the commandment to get drunk:“Rabah and Rabbi Zeira made a Purim banquet together and got drunk. Rabah got up and killed Rabbi Zeira. The next day he prayed for him and he was brought back to life. The next year he said, ‘why don’t you come and we’ll make a Purim banquet together.’ He said: ‘a miracle does not happen every time.’” So consider moderation. If you’re sober, don’t drink. And if you’re drinking, don’t drive.
(6) For a queer take on Purim destabilization, check out High Healing-A Purim Message by the drag queen Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross.

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