Tomorrow night, Jewish people around the world will celebrate Purim. Between the costumes, the Hamentashen, the Hamilton-themed skits, and the halachicly-mandated debauchery, Purim is one of the most joyful occasions of the Jewish year– think Halloween meets Superbowl Sunday.
At the same time, Purim is also an incredibly political holiday, celebrating Jewish resistance in the face of an oppressive regime. The themes of joy and celebration during this holiday are by no means opposed to the themes of danger and resistance. In fact, they’re deeply intertwined.
In the midst of state repression and escalating violence against our communities– growing incarceration and deportation of immigrants, increased surveillance and travel restrictions on Muslims, and police murders of Black and Indigenous people– our Purim celebrations offer lessons on resistance and resilience.
Whenever I recount the story of Purim, I’m sure to focus on stories of refusal, moments in which the story’s characters stand up to powerful, oppressive rulers simply by defying their commands.
At the start of the tale, King Achashverosh commands Queen Vashti to join his banquet and dance for his guests in the nude. She refuses and is cast out of her throne. Later, the king’s advisor Haman instructs everyone he passes to bow to him. Mordechai refuses, explaining that he will only bow to God. Finally, as the story concludes Esther intervenes to save the Jewish people from Haman’s plot by confronting the King– breaking the law and risking her own life in the process.
We see refusal everywhere: from the grassroots removal of Confederate flags and monuments to the workers refusing to cooperate with deportations to the teachers striking in West Virginia. It’s like that poster we had in my 8th-grade History class: What’s legal isn’t always right, what’s right isn’t always legal.
Refusal, disobedience, and resistance are ways we stand up to those in power.
As a child, I loved the Purim Spiel at my conservative synagogue. Our Rabbi would dress up and members of our shul put on riotous skits in the social hall, singing, dancing, and cracking jokes with elaborately-crafted puppets. As I got older, I started catching the more “grown-up” humor of the Spiel– usually a mix of raunchy gags and jokes at the expense of then-President, George W. Bush.
Cracking a well-crafted joke is one of the best ways to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Humor allows us to publicly discuss topics that might otherwise be taboo– especially in a religious setting.
Moreover, our ability to laugh, to be silly and imaginative, and to transform our pain into a riotous good time is essential to healing. In fact, studies have shown that daily laughter lowers cortisol levels, boosts the immune system, and releases endorphins.
On Purim we read from Megillat Esther, which narrates the work of Esther and Mordechai to foil a plot by the king’s advisor, Haman, to murder their Jewish community. In many synagogues, we hear the Purim story several times, usually in the original Hebrew and then in a humorous adaptation, or Purim Spiel.
The tradition of storytelling during Purim reminds us of the importance of passing down stories– and doing so in accessible ways that everyone, old and young, can understand.
As we retell the drama of Jewish resistance in ancient Persia, we can reflect on the struggles of those who came before us. We might use Purim as a holiday to study anti-fascist movements in Europe or the anti-war/anti-militarization movement during Vietnam. We might reflect on the struggles of our ancestors or document our own political movements to pass down to future generations.
So while you’re eating Hamentashen and putting together a punny costume, remember that Purim is more than just a riotously good time– it’s a Jewish toolkit for resistance.
What do you think? What’s the most important lesson we can learn from Purim? Share it in the comments!
Purim Sameach, Y’all!