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With only a few more shopping days before Purim, I’m facing the difficult decision of what to wear to the Megilla reading. I can’t wear a fake beard, because I already have a real beard. If I wear a giant nose, nobody will notice the difference. And since I’ve put on a few pounds, I can’t fit into my gorilla suit.
Purim is surely one of the most delightful holidays on the calendar. Purim is celebrated by making noise, playing games, feasting, reading the Megilla and using a mind-altering substance. Purim is a happy holiday.
But there is also a very serious side of Purim:
Oh Once there was a wicked, wicked man
and Haman was his name, sir
He would have murdered all the Jews
though they were not to blame, sir
Oh today we’ll merry merry be.
Purim is a memorial observance of attempted genocide. For a generation growing up in the ashes of Auschwitz, with a memory of the Ottoman government’s Armenian Genocide in 1915, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and other recent travesties as well, there is nothing amusing about attempted genocide. Many of us remember Purim 1996 (5756) when terrorists murdered our children in their Purim costumes in Jerusalem.
How then can we celebrate Purim with mirth? The obvious answer is that we are celebrating the failure of the genocide attempt. If our happiness is in proportion to the stakes involved, then Purim rightly is one of our most joyous celebrations.
Correct as this answer may be, it doesn’t fully take into account the depths of feeling associated with the somber side of our brush with national destruction.
Purim elicits two strongly conflicting yet sincerely heartfelt emotions. We are horrified at the attempted destruction of our people, but we are overjoyed that the attempt failed.
At the same time, we must reflect on the other problem with Purim — the violent rampage of revenge our ancestors wreaked against their neighbors (at least according to the Megilla). It was this account that tipped the mental imbalance of the American Jewish man who committed the massacre of Muslims at worship in Hebron at Purim in 1994. Even if Purim is supposed to be a farce, it is now harder than ever to find it amusing.
For this reason, the mirthful celebration of Purim by itself would be almost offensive. That is why we observe the Fast of Esther, Taanit Ester, the day before Purim. (When Purim occurs on Sunday, the Fast is observed the previous Thursday.) From the morning until afternoon or evening, we observe a half-day fast, just as Esther observed a fast when the fate of her people hung in the balance. When we observe the Fast of Esther we solemnly commit ourselves to making a world where genocide is unknown, where all people enjoy their God-given human rights.
I believe that it is psychologically and spiritually crucial for us to observe both sides of Purim. We need — and perhaps deserve — the joyous celebration of Purim. But we also need the serious side of Purim. And that is the Fast of Esther, a day of somber reflection and action against war and genocide.
© Jon-Jay Tilsen 1995, 1998, 2016