19th century painting of esther fainting as she pleads with the king in court
"Esther Before Ahasuerus" by Franc Kavčič, 1815

The 3 best things about the holiday of Purim

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Tetzaveh/Shabbat Zachor/Purim
Exodus 27:20- 30:10
I Samuel 15: 1-34

The holiday of Purim, which tells of the Persian Jewish community during the time between the first and second temples in Jerusalem, begins Saturday night, March 11. It is the story of our near annihilation, and the people and circumstances that saved us. Today we celebrate it with light hearts and a degree of raucousness. In the spirit of getting us ready, and helping those of us who are still trying to figure out their costume, I offer you my three favorite things about Purim.

3. When it falls
My third favorite thing about Purim is its place on the calendar, during the Hebrew month of Adar. The rabbis of the Talmud taught that when this month arrives, we increase our joy. It’s tempting to ask what those who coined this saying could have known about our world many centuries later. Quite a bit, as it turns out. They too lived during generations where joy felt in short supply, and it seemed the only reasonable conclusion was that things were getting worse. And yet, it’s as though they reached forward with these words to illuminate our place and time. Our tradition conveys that while there are reasons to despair — then and now — there are also reasons to hope. Enter Purim, to give us a push in the right direction.

2. Shabbat Zachor
My second favorite thing about Purim is that the Shabbat that precedes it — this Shabbat, which begins Friday at sundown — is called Shabbat Zachor, or the Sabbath of Remembrance. The last section of Torah we traditionally read this week reminds us of Amalek, the Israelites’ most notorious enemy in the Torah, who attacked the people starting with the weakest among them as they made their journey from slavery to freedom. According to tradition, Haman, the villain of the Purim plot, was a descendant of Amalek. When you come to safety, the Israelites are told, “you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven — do not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:19).
Blot it out — but do not forget? How are we simultaneously to do both? Past pain, loss or violation aren’t easy to forget. Nor is that necessarily a helpful or even possible approach. However, is there a place for allowing the past to inform us without letting it define us?
I believe so. Perhaps we can read the phrase as “you will not forget,” rather than “do not forget.” You may fear forgetting, but you won’t be able to. Even as you walk forward, even as your new lives take you far from where you started, you won’t forget. Shabbat Zachor does not lay out simple, one-size-fits-all solutions for these struggles, but it does remind us to grapple with them. It reminds us to remember.

1. Everything else
And finally, my top favorite thing about Purim: everything else. Purim is liminal space — a time when we stand apart from the usual customs of our synagogues and let our hair down. There is chaos and noise and a sense of the unexpected. There are blurred boundaries, best exemplified by a tradition that bids us to drink until we no longer know the difference between Haman and Mordechai.
There are sudden and entire reversals of fortune: a villain who meets his end via the gallows he intended for the Jews, a queen living in fear of revealing her true identity, whose revelation ends up saving not only herself but also her people.
And, all these centuries later, we celebrate with comedy and laughter. It’s surprising, when you consider the fact that the issues laced through this story — bigotry, fear, fabrication of a climate of crisis for — are deadly serious and painfully relevant. Yet, on this one day, what do we do? We poke fun at them. We find the humor, against all odds. Because that’s part of the story too, the story of how we make it through.
So from this Shabbat Zachor and forward — may increased joy find us. Happy Purim.

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tikvah Walnut Creek. She can be reached at [email protected].