By Larry Gordon
People used to bring mishloach manos to my parents, and then, later in the day, my mom and dad would rearrange the plates, platters, or boxes and send us kids out to different areas of the neighborhood to deliver ours to friends and neighbors.
And that was the long and short of it. Then there were also the people who rang the doorbell looking for a donation on the holiday, which has always been known as a time for good cheer and charitable generosity. There was a bowl of quarters and a stack of single dollar bills in the vestibule, and each of us was given the latitude and discretion to determine to whom and what we wanted to give—and that in and of itself was a crowning achievement of the holiday observance.
Beyond the fading glimmer of those long-ago childhood scenes, there were indeed many Purim celebrations between then and now. Purim is probably the most joyous of traditional observances, with Simchas Torah providing a close second place or perhaps even a tie for first place.
For my part, I always gauged the success and enjoyment of Purim based on the weather and the atmospheric comfort level of the day. Maybe it was because there was once a very warm Purim day when I was a child and I convinced myself at the time that this was the perfect kind of Purim.
When Purim landed at a more wintery time, I felt that there was something out of sync and that Purim was more synonymous with the scent of spring, if not actual spring itself.
As I write these words, the weather forecast on my iPhone says that Purim day is going to be cool—temperatures in the mid-40s—with a chance of rain. And, actually, as we head into Pesach following the Purim celebration it looks like it is going to remain cool for a while, at least up here in the Northeast.
This year, as the readers know, I am marking the tail end of my year of mourning after the loss of my mother. The aveilus actually concludes a bit less than two weeks after Purim, so that means that my usual Purim activities are curtailed in deference to the loss and the mourning period. Purim is still the joyous holiday that it has always been, and the festivities will go on, but just a tad more in the shadows than usual.
The wonderful thing about Purim is something that all Jewish holidays and observances have in common. That is the remarkable ability to instruct and inspire us to put our usual everyday routines on hold and do something completely different.
Sure, it is a special bonus when Purim falls out on a Saturday night and then Sunday instead of midweek, but a Thursday celebration like it is this year is a close runner-up to the Sunday chag. At the other end of the spectrum, it is easy to feel a bit shortchanged on the rare instance when Purim falls out on a Friday, which does occur, though rather infrequently.
There are so many enjoyable components to Purim, one might argue that they are even too many to enumerate in full detail. There is the triumph and the overcoming of adversity of an ancient and isolated Jewish community in King Achashveirosh’s Persia.
There is the matter of commemorating the concealment of G-d’s presence in the miracles that are recounted and detailed in the Megillah. There is the lesson of appreciation and camaraderie after a close call that came about as a result of an unusual Jewish unity which, we are instructed once again, can achieve so much.
But then there was the drinking at the great feast thrown by the king that may have drawn the ancient Persian Jews into some historical hot water in the first place.
So in a sense, it was the partying that drew them in then, and it just might be the partying and the drinking that has wreaked havoc and has done so much damage all these few thousand years later. Talk about the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Today Purim has become in too many circles a holiday celebration to be on guard about. And that is not just unpleasant, it is plain sad. The issue is whether or not we were once capable of isolating the Purim experience to that 24-hour or two-day period and then reverting back to normal life without any lasting impact from the Purim indulgence.
Unfortunately, it seems that both conventional and professional wisdom says that once allowed out of the usual parameters of expected behavior, too many yeshiva and other students may face too much of an overwhelming challenge not to carry that taste or even minimally acquired Purim lifestyle back to everyday life.
The other day we spoke with Dr. Shani Verschleiser, the founder and director of Magenu, an organization founded about five years ago in order to provide education and an address for children and parents alike to consult when dealing with these difficult and perplexing personal matters.
She says that it is no secret that our community is facing troubled times, albeit in a minority of cases. But we all understand that even a few cases of young people who are drawn to aberrant and dangerous behavior is way too much.
And even more troubling, she says, is the uptick in incidents of abuse when families tend to get together as we do around holiday times, whether it is Purim, Pesach, or during other periods during the course of the year.
Not so long ago, when we were in yeshiva, we were able to imbibe some spirits, which we would not think of doing on any other day of the year—just like we were able to lampoon our rebbeim and other school staff in yeshiva. But that did not mean that we adapted that type of behavior or practice on a daily basis following the traditional Purim shpiel. Whatever took place on Purim was about Purim, and that was the beginning and the end of it. But that does not seem to be the case anymore.
The Talmud says that if a person recites or reads the Megillah or the Purim story backward he did not properly fulfill the obligation or mitzvah to read the Megillah on Purim. Some commentators spin that interpretation by saying that if one reads the story and the experience of the ancient Jews of Persia but fails to properly recognize its relevance to our contemporary lives today, then he or she has not properly internalized the true lessons of the Megillah and its intended messages.
That is, we can’t look back at the plan to isolate and persecute Jews centuries ago and conclude that this was something that happened long ago and has little or nothing to do with us here in 2018. So I suppose the message is that the lessons of Jewish life throughout history are never something that happened in the too-distant past that we cannot learn a contemporary lesson from whatever it is on some level.
At the very start of the Megillah story, we are told of the extravagant gala that King Achashveirosh hosted and how the Jewish community participated in the merriment and celebration. They partook of the intoxicants and exquisite cuisine to the point of losing their moral compass and identity, which precipitated the downhill spiral that almost resulted in their annihilation.
So perhaps Purim is indeed the same holiday and celebration that it has always been. Maybe it is we who have changed, as well as the fashion in which society at large has managed to seep into our otherwise fairly well-insulated lifestyle that was capable of protecting us from going over the top and celebrating a little too much and in an unhealthy way.
That just might be it—Purim then and now was and is always the same. We don’t have to protect ourselves from the possible overindulgences of Purim; we have to protect the wholesomeness and integrity of Purim from us.
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