I can remember the Purim holidays of my childhood as if they were yesterday. The festivities would begin with everyone gathering in the main communal building of our kibbutz, where the grownups would perform a rendition of the Book of Esther (the Megillah) – what many would call a ‘Purim Shpiel’. I have vivid memories of all the children sitting on the floor, dressed up in costume with groggers tightly held in little hands as we waited for the villain’s name to be spoken. The scenery for this theatrical performance was always the same: a golden Persian palace, a throne for King Ahasuerus, a throne for the queen, a large toy horse, and glittering royal robes and beautiful costumes for all the actors. The lines that the actors spoke were known to everyone as they were from the text of the Megillah, albeit with some omissions and alterations to make the story suitable for young children.
Even today, I can still quote by heart the beginning to the Megillah-play: “It happened in the days of Ahasuerus—that Ahasuerus who reigned over a hundred and twenty-seven provinces…”
As an Israeli who is fluent in Hebrew, the words of the scroll are not foreign to me. I feel uncomfortable when someone misinterprets its language. Today, as an adult, I know that I have received a gift that my parents' generation, and even the generation that preceded them, worked hard to give me – for a few moments each year, I feel a sense of home within Jewish culture.
I did not grow up in an observant community, but the holiday celebrations were designed with a deep connection to our history, to the values of the community, and to the traditions that developed within the Israeli society. Jewish culture had a significant presence in our lives every holiday and Shabbat, even though we lived in a community that defined itself as Hiloni (Secular).
The generation of individuals that came to Israel and helped found the country brought with them a rich cultural history and, rather than leave this history behind, they worked hard to adapt their traditions and customs so that they would reflect their personal experiences and views. This required them to think creatively as they actively chose what traditions to preserve, what to not keep, and what innovative and new traditions they wanted to create. COVID-19 has presented us with an opportunity to continue to examine our traditions and customs, to rethink and reshape them so that they are relevant to our current experience. By going through this process of examination, we ensure that we never become too comfortable or participate in our traditions and customs as if on autopilot.
Our reality has changed a lot in the past year. In addition to a devastating global health crisis, we have also experienced the accompanying social and economic crises which have changed life as we know it. COVID-19 has required us to stay socially distant from each other. As we look to celebrate the Jewish holidays that mark the passing of the year, we must decide how we will take responsibility for continuing our family traditions in a COVID-safe manner. This requires that we not only understand how and why our customs and traditions were created, but to revisit the questions of our forefathers and foremothers: What traditions do we preserve? What should we leave behind? How can we innovate and create new traditions?
Purim is an opportunity to ask ourselves these very questions, and with these questions we might find a way to return to the essence of the holiday. We have the opportunity to see Purim through the lens of ‘Israel in 2021’. How are we celebrating Purim? Why is this holiday interesting and relevant to us? In this article, I will offer some thoughts on the subject, based on the four traditional Purim mitzvot: reading the Megillah (Story of Esther), delivering mishloach manot (holiday treat parcels), helping the needy, and partaking in the holiday feast.
Putting a Contemporary Spin on the Traditional Purim Mitzvot
Reading the Megillah: During the holiday, synagogues and Jewish communities around the world read the Megillah. How do we make sure that the melody we use to chant the text of the scroll, and the dramatic story within it, are also part of the cultural world of children who do not go to synagogue? How is the story relevant to adults? Most of us are vaguely familiar with the story of Purim. Take a moment and think back to what you remember of the story. Who are the characters? Who is good and who is evil? How does the story end?
If you are able to read in Hebrew fluently, I encourage you to read the scroll for yourself. If you do not read in Hebrew, sefaria.org is a great website that offers texts in Hebrew, English, and with the two languages side-by-side.
The ten chapters of the Megillah contain a lot of different issues: a minority within majority, sovereignty and exile, victory and revenge, and gender. In order to find ways to make the story relevant to our lives in this day and age, we must read it, understand it, discuss it, and ask questions.
Mishloach Manot: This year we should not settle for "Secret Santa" games (in Israel we call this ‘the giant and the dwarf’) or pulling a present from a large bag of “girl” or “boy” toys. In a time when we are required to be socially distant, our focus should be on presence and not on presents. Checking in on a classmate, colleague, or even sitting outside for a chat with a neighbor that you might not know too well can be a wonderful and heartwarming gift, and maybe even more meaningful than the traditional mishloach manot parcels filled with cookies and candies. This year let our mishloach manot focus on gifts that nurture our relationships with those around us. Our present to our communities should be the building of new relationships, breaking down of boundaries that isolate, and even bringing in closer those living in the periphery of the society.
Gifts for the needy: It is important for us to actively seek out those who are lacking basic resources for their lives in our community and in our society. While doing so may be a good reminder of how much we have, it is a reminder of how much we also have to give, even if only a modest amount. This past year has weakened many of us as it has eaten into our resources and savings accounts, causing many families a lot of stress. The past year has highlighted a need for communities to pool their assets – not material assets but rather social, emotional, and spiritual assets that feed our humanity and heal our soul. This can be saying a kind word to another, giving a hug (when safe to do so), or volunteering your individual skills to help another (such as teaching a neighbor how to use Zoom to see their grandkids). Each one of us has lost something in the past year, and it is in this building of community and togetherness that we can find a new kind of wealth.
The holiday feast: Food has always occupied a place of honor in our Jewish tradition, especially during Jewish holidays (although Purim is certainly weak from the culinary perspective). In general, we have come to associate social gatherings with meals with friends or family. On Purim, in addition to enjoying a celebratory meal, the custom of drinking until drunk sends a very problematic message to teens and adults, regardless of global pandemics. In our current reality, eating together in large groups is off the table (pun intended), even in small groups.
This year, we have the opportunity to examine what the holiday feast means to us and why it is an important mitzvah for the Purim holiday. What is the essence of having a festive meal? Why is it important for us to continue this tradition? How can we make this mitzvah relevant to our lives today? I want to offer joy as the essence of the festive meal. It is a mitzvah to be happy and joyful. When the month of Adar arrives, we rejoice.
Think about the times in your life that you’ve experienced pure, simple joy. Sometimes, it seems that we are losing the skill to truly be joyful. With Purim, we have a set date on the calendar to practice joy. This is a time to find out what makes you happy and nurture that.
This year, as we celebrate the Purim holiday within the confines of COVID-19 pandemic, I invite you to be creative, look for ways to broaden your horizons, and re-examine your traditions. Find ways to celebrate the holiday in new, meaningful ways that are relevant to the current times and yet, still infused with our beloved traditions and cherished values.
I wish you and your loved ones a very happy and meaningful Purim. Chag Purim Sameach!
Ayala Weizner is the Director of BINA’s Kibbutz Movement Leadership Program