Every year, a month before Passover, Jews dress up in fun costumes, host parties, deliver tasty packages to friends and give donations to charity. We do all this because it’s actually mandated by the holiday, Purim, which is a Jewish Halloween of sorts – except there are no ghouls or goblins or tricks.
Purim is the day on the Jewish calendar when our brethren around the world dedicate the day to poking fun of our religion, making fun of our rabbis and engaging in parody and satire about the very thing we usually take so seriously: what we believe.
Especially in light of recent current events around the globe, not taking yourself so seriously is an important part of any religion. On Purim, students are allowed to make fun of their rabbis. Congregants make goofy jokes about the liturgy and the tradition. It’s a very light-hearted and celebratory day, tied to the idea that if you take yourself so seriously all the time, it creates a problem.
Every fall, after the solemnity of our Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is a 25-hour fast day to avenge our sins, we have another light-hearted holiday called Sukkot. The juxtaposition is no coincidence – sure, we have the serious and the harsh, the contemplative and the reprimand. And then we have the fun.
Balance is key in any organized community. It’s imperative, actually. In Judaism, and in all religions, we have mechanisms built-in so we won’t take ourselves that seriously.
Although it falls on March 5th this year (beginning at sundown on the 4th), Purim is actually the last holiday of the Jewish calendar because Passover is considered the start. That’s the holiday that’s all about God doing everything for us, where the Purim story is about human beings taking some responsibility.
The celebration of Purim is very lighthearted, but the story of Purim itself is quite serious. It takes place after the Babylonians destroyed the First Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and took the Jewish people to Babylonia as captives in exile. The Persians then conquered the Babylonians.
The Jewish people lived safely in Persia for a while until a vicious anti-Semite named Haman tried to convince his King Achashverosh to destroy the Jewish community. Thanks to the bravery of a Jewish woman named Esther and the strategies of her uncle Mordecai, Haman fails and is himself destroyed.
Purim is a reminder of how quickly our safe and comfortable world can be turned upside down by fanatics, and how much diligence and courage is needed to prevent that from happening. Mordecai and Esther took their responsibilities very seriously, but did not take themselves too seriously. They did what was needed.
Part of being responsible includes knowing when to take things seriously and knowing when to let things go. It’s the wisdom of realizing that we shouldn’t fight over everything and that we can laugh at ourselves a little bit.
If a tradition is good, it can take a little poking at. Only insecure people are afraid of parody or criticism. Most religions include built-in checks and balances – while we are responsible for setting an example, doing right, making the world a better place, we can also have fun and enjoy our lives.
Those who are forbidden from criticizing the establishment build up resentments. And at a certain critical mass, those resentments explode.
In one of our sacred texts, Pirkei Avot, which translates as Lessons of the Fathers, we are reminded that rabbis are not to separate from the community. I interpret that as preventing the leaders of a community from building an inflated sense of their own importance.
On Purim, everyone comes together to eat, drink and be merry. We get silly. We dress up. We make fun. We regain a healthy sense of perspective that tempers any lingering anger or hostility. It’s like our built-in release valve, showing us that religion is important but not more important than people.