Sunday, March 8, 2009

Esther: A Tale of Passion, Intrigue, and Vengeance

Chag Purim Sameach, everyone. Happy Purim.

I celebrated Purim this year in my traditional fashion:

  1. Baking over 10 dozen hamantaschen to be distributed to family and friends for shalach manot (sending of gifts)

  2. Planning to celebrate my favorite holiday in style with a big Purim party involving friends and games and food and drink

  3. Completely failing to get my act together in time to actually carry off said Purim party

  4. Taking the kids to the Purim carnival so they could win lots and lots of tchotchkes that will eventually end up in a landfill

  5. Dressing up in costume, attending a reading of the Megillah (the Book of Esther) at my synagogue, and dutifully whirring my grogger at the mention of Haman's name (the evil villain of the story)

I leave every Purim feeling woefully unfulfilled. What's worse is that I feel I have to gobble up all the leftover hamantaschen and scramble to get ready for Pesach which is only a month away. I have got to break this vicious cycle.

Purim throughout my upbringing has always been a joyous holiday. "Joyous" should be defined as, "wildly happy under carefully controlled conditions." Even the Chasidim, who know how to party hardy when the situation calls for it, place their drinking within the context of Torah study. I remember an orthodox rabbi friend who once told me that the drunkest he ever got was on a Purim. He was studying the Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther) with a well known, well respected rabbi, and every time they finished studying a section, the elder rabbi's wife brought them some schnapps.

"So, tell me," I asked him. "What is the Book of Esther like when you are drunk."

"I made some of the most cogent, intelligent insights I have ever made," he responded dryly. "I just wish I could remember them."

Purim has too long been shackled by "joyousness." It's time that the holiday moved to "wicked raucousness." And, if necessary, I will lead the charge.

Mind you, I am not advocating for strong drink in these enlightened, temperate times of AA, MADD, and celebrity rehab stints. Nor am I advocating AGAINST it either. Sure, there is the Talmudic requirement to get so drunk on Purim that one does not know the difference between, "cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai." But by codifying the requirement to get drunk, even an act of wild intoxication becomes simply "joyous." Ever since the writing of the Talmud, rabbinical scholars have either tried to justify carefully controlled drunken behavior, or explained it away in a metaphorical context. What fun is that?

Whoopee. Purim is either a pediatric holiday of songs, cookies, and costumes or a drunken celebration with carefully measured shot glasses.

We are missing the bigger picture. Purim is one helluva soap opera story. THIS is what we should focus on. Forget the costumes, forget the controlled or uncontrolled drinking, forget the 10 dozen hamantaschen (oy, I wish I could). Just go back and read the full story. Hot stuff.

For example, Mordechai won't bow down to Haman because Mordechai is a Jew. In Sunday School I learned that this was because Mordechai would not bow down to any man; he would only bow down to God. Malarkey. Read the damn story. Haman is a descendant of Agag, the Amalekite king, and the Agagites are blood enemies of the Jews. In the parshah Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 25:19), the Torah says, "You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!" So, this whole little misunderstanding was due to a nasty blood feud, not some higher religious attitude on Mordechai's part. No wonder Haman was pissed.

Or how about later in the Book of Esther when Esther reveals Haman's plot to the king, and the king walks away furious at Haman. Haman sees that the king is out for blood and he prostrates himself in front of the queen to beg for mercy. The king comes back in the room and sees Haman lying prostrate on Esther's couch and thinks that Haman is about to ravish his queen. Whoops! If the whole plotting to exterminate the Jews thing weren't bad enough, now Haman's caught in a compromising position with the queen. WHOAAAA!

Or how about when the Jews have been given permission by the king to fight against anyone who attacks them and they kill 500 people in one day in the city of Shushan, including Haman's sons. If that wasn't bloody enough for you, Esther orders that Haman's dead sons be impaled on a stake, presumably to send the message, "Don't mess with us," and then the Jews get to do the whole thing again the next day, killing 300 men.

We celebrate this story with jam filled cookies? Groovy.

So, next year I plan to celebrate this great holiday in style. After all the baking is done, after the kids are tired from the Purim carnival, after we have all paraded around the synagogue dressed as pirates, my wife and I are going to put the kids to bed, turn the lights down low, and read the book of Esther to each other. We'll take turns reading sections, mutter commentary to each other such as, "Sunovabitch! That's wicked harsh!", debate who we would cast in the Oliver Stone rendering of the story, and then play act some of the more interesting scenes.

And then, and only then, will I get drunk.

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