Sunday 20 March 2011

Being Happy on Purim

Today is the day that Jews around the world celebrate the festival of Purim. The festival celebrates the victory of the Jews of Persia over the anti-Semitic Haman, who sought to have them all annihalated. It was only through the actions of Queen Esther and her uncle, the righteous Mordechai, that the king was convinced to save the Jews and to execute his trusted adviser Haman instead. To mark this miraculous event, Jewish law requires that Jews be happy on Purim. In fulfillment of this commandment, it is customary for adults and children to dress in fancy dress, and for adults to consume copious amounts of alcohol. A rabinnic ruling says that people should revel on Purim until "they cannot tell the difference between the evil Haman and the saintly Mordechai".

But how can we be happy on Purim when, only one week earlier, 5 members of the Fogel family have been ruthlessly murdered in their beds? And how can we feel safe on Purim when communities near to the Gaza Strip had to endure 50 rockets being fired by the Palestinians randomly towards Jewish homes in a short space of 40 minutes yesterday? How can we celebrate the festival when the memory of the 8 young boys who were murdered 3 years ago while sitting in the library of the Mercaz Harav religious school in Jerusalem is still so fresh in our minds? How can we revel in the miracle of Purim when Gilad Shalit remains in captitivity for the 6th year, without his basic humanitarian needs being taken care of? Does Gilad even know that today is Purim? These events and others make it difficult to celebrate Purim and feel genuine happiness from the bottom of our hearts. Despite this, we are obliged to feel happiness and joy on this festival.

It seems unusual to be commanded to have an emotional feeling as part of one's obligations on a festival. And yet, this is the situation on Purim. Our rabbis draw a link between Purim and Yom Kippurim (Yom Kippur, also translated as "a day like Purim"), which is Judaism's most solemn day. They make the point that observant Jews would not consider the possibility of not fasting on Yom Kippur if they do not feel like it. By the same token, we are expected to feel happy on Purim even if we don't particularly feel happy. This is part of our commitment to G-d and the blind fulfillment of His commandments.

In spite of the sadness that many parts of Israel are feeling, Purim was celebrated today as usual and as in previous years. The parades in towns and cities went ahead to the sounds of blaring music and accompanied by adults and children dressed up in all manner of outfits. Young children fulfilled their fantasies of dressing up as princesses, superheros and movie characters. Gifts of food were given by people to their friends, and donations made to the needy to allow all to partake in the traditional Purim feast. The story of Purim (the Megilah of Esther) was recited for all to hear, and Haman's name was drowned out by boos and graggers in the traditional way. Dressing up parties continued into the early hours. In particular, in the settlement of Itamar, a special effort was made to be happy on Purim. The fact that we were able to be happy on Purim against the background of all the other events, is a great achievement and serves to honour G-d's commandment to an even greater extent.

Wouldn't it be good if we can wake up on the day after Purim, and feel the same happiness in evidence? Unfortunately, reality will come back to roost and we will be back to dealing with our daily threats, issues and feelings of loss. All these tragic events that we continue to suffer embroider the blanket of Jewish history in much the same way as the Purim events that took place in Persia all those years ago. In some ways, things have not changed at all. As much as I hope that we will be able to work through the everpresent threats and reach a situation where we can live in peace without anybody having the intention to harm or kill us, that time has not yet come.

Just as the Jews of Persia took it upon themselves to do all that they could to secure the future of the Jewish people, we do the same today. On this, the happiest day in the Jewish calendar, we feel particularly close to those who have to make the maximum effort to be happy today. We think about the surviving members of the Fogel family, and we think about the Shalit family who fight tirelessly to return their son and brother home. We think about all the survivors of the Holocaust, and we think about those families who have lost loved ones in war or terror incidents over the past 63 years and more. We thank them for making such an effort to be happy on Purim even if there is deep pain in their hearts. This is a sign of strength and resilience that the Jewish people have, and that we are not ready to give up on this battle for survival.

Chag Purim sameach. Happy Purim.

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