The Ikar* of Purim: Going Beyond Either/Or
Notes for a Teaching on Purim
5780 ~ 2020
*ikar means “the essence” or “the main point”
“This realization of Oneness is the ultimate experience of love.”
––R. David Aaron, Inviting God In, p. 174
What ties the mitzvot of Purim together?
Why is Purim the only holy day that the Sages declared would still be observed in
y’mot ha-mashiakh, the time of a healed world?
Five days ago, we entered the month of Adar on the Jewish calendar. The is last month of the year, since the most significant of the Jewish calendar’s four new years begins in the spring, on the 1st of Nisan (next month), the month in which the celebration of Passover and the Exodus from Egypt take place. The Talmud teaches: “Joy is increased in the month of Adar.” Kabbalistically its energy is said to be “the joy of Oneness,” and the whole month is called z’man simkhateynu, the season of our joy. The holy day of the month is Purim, celebrated on the 14th of the month, and in some places on the 15th.
So what do you know about Purim? What associations do you have with the holiday? What are your curiosities?
The story of Purim, told in Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther), takes place at an unspecified time in the city of Shushan, a great city in ancient Persia. The word “purim” means “lots” and refers to the lots cast by Haman to determine the day on which he planned to have his men attack and destroy all the Jews of Persia.
Yom Kippur, on the other side of the Jewish calendar, is sometimes called Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonements or Coverings, which can be parsed “Yom Haki-Purim,” “a day like Purim,” because on it, lots were also drawn—by the High Priest in the Jerusalem Temple to determine which of two goats would be sacrificed to atone for the entire people and which would be the proverbial scapegoat, sent into the wilderness, symbolically bearing the sins of the people on its head.
Of course, the spiritual technologies of these two days are very different. Yom Kippur is a solemn, awesome day of fasting and prayer; a day on which people wear white garments reminiscent of the kittel, the white linen garment in which they’ll be buried; a day when we aspire to be wiped clean of past errors and reborn, freed from constricting and wrongheaded ideas and behaviors. Purim, on the other hand is a bawdy holiday of raucous play, dressing up in costume, feasting, getting drunk, joking and satirizing one’s enemies and the direst of situations. What could possibly be the relationship between these two very different holy days?
In her excellent booklet on the kabbalistic roots of the Tu BiShvat Seder (you can order it at https://astillsmallvoice.org/product/ssv-tu-b-shvat-hagada-2/), which is the holiday we celebrated last month, on the full moon of Shvat, Sarah Yehudit Schneider writes this:
If life is a spiritual path, our primary task is not the accumulation of facts, but the integration of truth so deeply into our flesh, that our instinctive and reflexive response to the world shifts accordingly. This is the Jewish definition of enlightenment. (p. 33, my emphasis)
So we might ask, how do our khagim, our holidays, contribute to this great spiritual project? For one thing, every Jewish khag has its origins, either in an earth-based ritual, a historical event, or both, and involves mitzvot or minhagim—specific physical actions and symbols designed to help us inscribe the message of the holy day in our body-minds. And on the mystical level, every khagbrings a particular flavor of tikkun (repair). Here’s what Schneider says about tikkunim in general:
Every tikkun has two parts. First, is that it always includes some actualization of potential, meaning that some undeveloped capacity of soul becomes visible to the world. Second, is to gradually refine the consciousness one brings to that effort. (p. 28)
The mitzvot and customs of Purim include the reading or hearing of the Megillat Esther, Esther’s Scroll; creating satirical and raucous plays that reenact or embroider upon the story; dressing in outrageous costumes; making music and dancing; giving tzedakah and caring for the poor; delivering sh’lakh manot (gifts of at least two different kinds of food to at least one neighbor; many people make up little goody bags they distribute at Purim parties); and feasting and becoming so intoxicated that you can’t tell the difference between the phrases “arur Haman” and “borukh Mordecai,” “cursed Haman” and “blessed Mordecai.” This last teaching actually appears in the Talmud (Megillah 7b): “khayav inish liv’sumei b’Puraya ad d’lo yada ben arur Haman l’borukh Mordekhai, a person is required to become intoxicated on Purim, to the point that they can’t distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordecai.’
What, then, is the particular tikkun or fixing effected by the mitzvot of Purim and how do they reveal our soul capacities and refine our consciousness? If as the Kabbalists teach, the healing of this month is through joy and laughter, what is being revealed and repaired? What do you imagine these observances have to do with one another and why did the Sages teach that Purim would be the only remaining holiday and Megillat Esther the only text still read, along with the Five Books of Moses, in y’mei ha-mashiakh, the world that is coming, that time of universal radical sacred hospitality? (to learn more about “sacred hospitality,” read Adam Horowitz’s recent wonderful blog on the subject at medium.com: https://medium.com/@adamhorowitz/toward-an-infrastructure-of-sacred-hospitality-5657611e79df)
“Megillat Esther” literally means “the revelation (gilui) of hiddenness (hastair).” It’s taught that, on the deepest level, the Hiddenness revealed through Purim is the encompassing Oneness that takes us beyond either/or, good/evil, friend/enemy—beyond dualistic thinking. The phrases arur Haman and borukh Mordecai have the same numerical value in Hebrew, 502, which in itself adds up to 7 (5 + 0 + 2), the number symbolic of Creation. On this day, through joy and revelry, we’re encouraged to elevate our consciousness to a level beyond the everyday, to take a magical mystery tour back to the Garden of Eden, which had the undivided Tree of Life at its center (the Tree that later splits into the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil). We dress in costume, making fun of our limited identities, shattering set ways of thinking with laughter, bearing witness to the fact that this whole, crazy world, as the Baal Shem Tov taught, is actually God in drag, the Divine Oneness cloaked in variety and multiplicity. “This realization of Oneness is the ultimate experience of love.” (Aaron, Inviting God In, p. 174)
And the agent of this revelation, in the Purim story, is none other than the Divine Feminine, the Shekhinah herself in disguise—Esther. The story itself couches its potent political message in humorous stereotypes and satire, mocking and defying the powers that be. Mordecai refuses to kowtow to Haman, the hubristic minister; Esther turns the tables on a dunderhead king, Achashverosh, who has banished his previous queen, Vashti, when she refused to dance naked before his drunken party guests.
In the Passover story, God must intercede directly, performing miracles that controvert nature—the plagues, the splitting of the sea, the drowning of the Egyptian armies. The God of Nisan, of the Exodus, acts violently to extract the Israelites from Egypt and set them free to serve the Divine. But in the Purim story, nothing supernatural happens—the miracles are hidden, God’s name is never mentioned, and the Divine plan is implemented solely through the courageous choices of human beings who speak truth to power.
Of course, there’s a dark side to this story—the death of Haman and his sons, the mandate for the Jews to take revenge upon Haman’s gangs. Even if we accept the tale as a kind of canonical superhero comic book, a revenge fantasy on the order of Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film, Inglourious Bastards, it’s still challenging to cut through the carnage to the ikar (essence) of the khag—the deep knowing that we can never fall out of God, that love is woven into every occurrence and challenge of life. The mitzvoth of caring for the poor, gifting of food to friends, feasting and rejoicing, are all intended to liberate that love energy, to remind us that beneath all our differences, we are each a unique expression of the One. It’s for this reason that the Sages asserted that Purim would be the only holiday celebrated in mashiakhvelt, a holy day that elevates us even beyond Yom Kippur’s wiping away of sin—into a state of consciousness, of wholeness of being, in which Oneness is universally perceived and, in the absence of the good/evil dichotomy, joyful celebration is eternally possible.
How might you celebrate Purim this year?
© Rabbi Diane Elliot 2020