By Cantor Jamie Marx
With Election Day nearly upon us, no American can ignore the intense political tension that has taken over the country. Our inboxes and televisions are filled with campaign appeals and political movements desperate for our time and attention. As we all know, the Jewish community has not been immune to this turmoil. Many of us are still wrestling with the Kavanaugh hearings and the recent revelations about high profile members of the Jewish community. The #MeToo movement continues to jolt our community. Where should we turn in the midst of this chaotic turmoil to make sense of everything that is happening?
One could reasonably assume that Yom Kippur is the best Jewish holy day to engage a congregation in a conversation on sexual assault, toxic masculinity, and the #MeToo movement. But for me, it’s Purim. We are living in the golden age of Purim and it’s not because of any perceived similarities between characters in the bible and American political figures, but because that most ridiculous of rituals – the Purim spiel – can help us talk about subjects that American society is struggling with today.
In the #MeToo era, it might be questionable to make a virtue of the classic Purim themes and traditions: getting so drunk that one loses control, patriarchal authority, indifference to one’s Jewish heritage. The Book of Esther is a story filled with elitist excess, non-consenting sexual and marital relations, and state-sanctioned violence. It’s easy enough to get lost in the p’shat, the surface understanding of the story, and to find plenty to take offense against. In America today, one could easily make the argument that Purim is no longer a story that needs to be told and perhaps even encourages the worst in all of us.
But Purim is truly the ideal holy day to help us face the issues that are at the forefront of conversation in America today. While we’re dressing up in costumes and singing silly songs, we’re discussing Achashverosh’s indifference to genocide and his self-indulgent elitism. While we nosh hamantaschen and practice our Esther trope, we’re examining Esther’s increasing self-awareness and self-actualization. And we look at Mordechai and Haman, the two exemplars of moral extremes, and are reminded that it is not enough to merely rail against evil, we must gather allies, plan, and then act.
A great Purim spiel script can help move the conversation along. As is common throughout the bible, the text invites us in many key moments to dig deeper into the thoughts and motivations of the characters. How does Esther feel about joining Achashverosh’s harem? What drives the king’s decision to give Haman his royal signet with hardly a word? How does Esther find the courage to approach the king to beg for the lives of her people? These questions cry out from the story, giving every Purim spiel author a chance to push the congregation to consider a new frame for the story, to highlight a moment of decision and all of the many angles that could have led up to it.
While Purim may seem far away, this is the time when many congregations start planning their Purim spiels. This year, let us use these sublimely silly stories to help us make sense of our modern world and the urgent issues we face.