By Atara Bachrach, Opinions Editor & Website Manager
With Purim just around the corner, members of the Jewish Orthodox community everywhere are scurrying around, making last-minute preparations for what many consider to be the most festive holiday of the year. I mean, with all the wine, fancy parties, and outrageous costuming, it’s kind of impossible to see the day as anything else. But just what about this holiday makes it so special? In order to answer that question, I’d say it depends on who you ask. One might tell you they want to “make the best costume and Mishloach Manot theme ever, duh,” while someone else (over the age of 21) might mention that their goal is to get as drunk as possible. But it wasn’t always this way.
Let’s start at the beginning. As you might recall, the holiday of Purim was established as a result of a long course of events, taking place in Ancient Persia, that was recorded in Megillat Esther. The miracle that ultimately led to today’s celebration emerged as a result of Haman’s, King Achashveirosh’s evil chief advisor, attempt to carry out the genocide of the entire Jewish nation. Esther, a Jewish woman, had been brought to the palace and married to King Achashveirosh against her will years prior, but Haman’s rise to power revealed that Esther’s journey had been divine intervention. When the king learned of Haman’s true intentions from Esther, he was infuriated. However, since the decree had already been officialized with the king’s insignia, the only way to ensure that the Jews had a fighting chance was to proclaim that the Jews should do everything within their ability to stand up for themselves together and fight back. As a result of our resilience and ultimate victory from this awful attempt at the wipe-out of our nation, a rabbinical commandment was made to listen to every word of Megillat Esther twice, and it has become common practice in many shuls for the listeners to make noise when Haman’s name is read, as a motion of disrespect and erasure.
In addition to celebrating G-d’s hand in Megillat Esther, this is a holiday dedicated to our nation banding together as Ish Echad, B’Lev Echad– one person with one heart. And yet, somehow, Purim has become convoluted by many who celebrate it. The focus, which should be about creating unity– caring not just about the protection of our culture, but the unification of it– has shifted in a large way to more materialistic focuses. Rather than opening our wallets to the poor, we spend huge sums of money on making our costumes extravagant, and on giving and getting the most or best Mishloach Manot. So much has become a societal obligation and even a tool used by many to measure the importance and intensity of our relationships. This can also add extra stress, which takes away from the beauty and the true importance of the day.
But is that what it’s really meant to be about? The clothes? The wine? The cookies?
All the mitzvot connected to Purim are a part of actualizing the goal of unity. Mishloach Manot, for example, the mitzvah of giving prepared food to a friend or peer, helps create positive connections amongst ourselves. Many commentaries agree that one should actually give to a mere acquaintance before giving to a close friend, in order to increase the positivity and simcha since giving to a friend can be much easier than giving to someone you barely know. The Purim seudah [festive meal], a time for festivity, laughter, gathering together, and sharing in our simcha [happiness], is intended to increase the aforementioned closeness amongst our nation. And of course, the Megillah reading, the commandment to actively hear every word of the story of Esther, helps accomplish this goal; listening to the story of how our nation faced complete obliteration but lived, and understanding how it was only as a unit that they managed to survive.
It’s true that Purim is meant to be a day of celebration, but it is so important to remember its roots. The whole point of celebrating is to recognize that we survived an attempt towards our nation’s demise on a larger scale– an attempt at mass genocide–and we did it together. Because as important as it is that we are happy, it is also important that we remember what almost was, what could have been, and how it was that our nation came to survive.
While it is true that Purim is intended to be the happiest of holidays, this is only the case because we are celebrating our nation’s ability to stand together as a united community, especially in the face of danger. And what’s a danger to our nation if not our ability to overlook the importance of others and of treating each other with the utmost kindness and respect?
Purim is the day of our nation celebrating our survival. But what it is not, is a day for us to go against more mitzvot, like those of dan likaf zechut [giving others the benefit of the doubt] and bein adam lechaveiro [treating your peers kindly] by pitting us against each other, either in avoiding coming to each other’s aid or competing with our costumes, food, and parties, or even in whom we give Mishloach Manot. If there is one thing that has the power to hurt the Jews more than our enemies, it is Sinat Chinam [baseless hatred], the very sin which so horribly led to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash.
In fact, several commentaries express that it is important to give Matanot Laevyonim, gifts to the poor, not only to the poor, but to anyone who puts out their hand in request of funds, regardless of if you know them or have suspicions about how they will use that money. The meaning behind this concept aims towards the national unity which is imperative to Purim, teaching us that today, we have no choice but to remove the judgment barriers that tend to get in the way of our helping each other out, often assuming the worst of each other based on appearances or reputation, further demonstrating that Purim is a day designated and meant to put all of that aside.
Of course, it is to each his own. And if you want to spend this Purim night racking up the “L’Chayim”s, go for it– I certainly won’t stop you. But, ultimately, I feel that the most important thing to realize about this time is that Amalek isn’t the only evil we Jews face: sometimes, we can act as our own enemy, and Purim, a day on which we are meant to achieve the highest level of simcha by attaining the closest level of connection to our fellow Jews as possible, is the last time for us forget our roots.