In the Jewish month of Adar, a time of increased joy, we celebrate the holiday of Purim. It is a day of plenty of food (and even more drink!) in which we retell the story of Queen Esther, Mordechai and a community that moves from a place of precariousness to power in a moment’s time. All the while, there is laughter and merrymaking and masquerade. Learn more here.
Six Lessons that Purim Offers in a Threatened Democracy
1. In a world where the Divine is hidden...It’s on us to make this world more whole.
The fact that the Megillah of Esther is one of two biblical books that doesn’t mention God makes it some highly relatable content for those of us living in a world free of burning bushes and split seas. The story teaches us that when it seems that YHWH is AWOL we must do the work of creating holiness and wholeness in this world. In this political moment that means showing up en masse to ensure that no one’s personal safety will ever again be left to chance.
2. There is power in transgression.
It’s not every day that you see people shouting, dancing and drinking in synagogue (well, maybe shouting). Purim is a carnival holiday in which decorum and reverence, with all of their constraints, are cast aside in order to embrace a more transgressive mode of existence. In large scale civil rights movements there are moments where civil disobedience as well as irreverence and play become tools for poking holes in and uprooting ideologies of fear and hatred.
3. Blessed/Cursed - Break the Binary
On Purim it is a mitzvah to drink until you can’t distinguish between “cursed Haman” and “blessed Mordecai.” On a holiday in which we commemorate a near genocidal annihilation, isn’t it odd that we’re encouraged to get so lit that victims and oppressors might become indistinguishable? Perhaps our sages wanted to explode the binary of good and evil; seeing beyond such strict dichotomies will allow us to develop radical empathy and do the important work of truly beholding the other.
4. We must refuse to bow before power.
Mordechai’s refusal to bow to the king’s advisor Haman is what sets the drama of this story into motion. It seems that some amongst us have determined that the moral of the story is next time we should do what it takes to be deferential to the wickedly powerful. On the contrary, Mordecai is the first person referred to as a “Jew” precisely because he stands when a tyrant demands he sit. We must remain standing, remain defiant and remain entrenched in our belief that human dignity not be compromised.
5. A political movement without women is bound to fail.
We should not underestimate the significance of a female hero in an ancient religious text. The characters, themselves, seem incredulous to Esther’s position of influence in undermining a violent patriarchal regime, “Perhaps you were made queen for just this moment?” Today, women, trans and gender-non-conforming folks have taken the lead in organizing against the anti-democratic policies of this moment. Even as the glass-ceiling has remained intact, a feminist-led movement has served to inspire and forge a path forward.
6. We must control our urge for payback and violence and retribution.
It is tempting to read the ending of the Book of Esther as a Tarantino-esque fantasy of a long-marginalized people taking vengeance on their oppressors. Perhaps it is more challenging (and dispiriting) to accept that the powerless can become powerful, and, stuck inside a paradigm of victors and victims, seek to dominate those who once threatened them. We must be vigilant, even as we aim to subvert, not to become fixed in a cycle of violent retribution. The goal of liberatory movements is not to bring low and humiliate our political foes, but to flip the world upside down and transform them into our allies.