Purim: Playful and transcendent

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose holds the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair at Congregation B’nai Amoona, and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 

By Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

In just a few days, we will again welcome the most joyous of Jewish Festivals – Purim. For many of us, especially those of us with children, we look forward to this holiday because it enables us to reinforce the notion that Judaism has a “lighter side”; it is a religious tradition replete with opportunities for merrymaking, frivolity and a significant measure of silliness. In this way, Judaism’s attractiveness and appeal are appreciably enhanced and made readily available for a broader constituency. “Selling” active participation in the fun of Purim to our children is (at least at certain stages in their development) far easier than asking them to, for example, contemplate the complexities of the transgression- atonement- forgiveness cycle, which swirls about us during the High Holy Day Season.

Of course, relegating Purim to an exclusively pediatric celebration intended only for merriment and gaiety (of any age cohort!) is to miss a significant opportunity presented by this unique celebration. In fact, when we dig beneath the surface and consider carefully the potential profundity of Purim, we quickly realize the genius of those who instituted this celebration.

Allow me to illustrate my point with two interrelated and relatively straightforward examples.

1) God’s name does not appear in the Scroll of Esther: Whenever I teach the Megillah, people are utterly surprised and often taken aback by the notion that God is “absent” from the tale. Why — they ask — should we share a story that obfuscates God’s presence in human history? Can’t we find or even invent a tale that underscores God’s active participation in our destiny and thus promotes faith in the Almighty? What utility is there in reading a lengthy story — as fascinating as it might be — that lacks the ability to motivate us religiously?

Of course, our wise Sages were well aware of this challenge. In fact, they use God’s absence from the text of the Scroll of Esther as an opportunity to teach what they believed to be a most significant lesson about life. Often, God seems absent from the places we would most expect/hope to encounter the Divine. We become frustrated or despondent and begin to give up on the notion that God cares and will intercede. However, when all is said and done and we look back with hindsight – which is always 20/20, we realize that God’s Providence was at work. Once we have moved through the darkness and can thoughtfully consider what has transpired, we realize that we were never truly alone. Though not necessarily apparent or visible, the Holy One of Blessing was with us in the crucible of the experience.

2) The “Hidden” and the “Revealed” Continuum: The heroine of the Purim story is, of course, Queen Esther. Our Rabbis teach us that the name Esther was actually a pseudonym given to Mordechai’s niece whose true name was Hadassah. She is given this name – Esther – because of her crucial role and function within the Purim narrative. Esther is derived from the Hebrew word “Nistar”, which means “hidden” or “undetected”. It is Esther who – through her behind the scenes efforts – allows for God’s master plan to evolve and come to fruition. Without her, there would have been no salvation and no elevation of Mordechai and the Jewish People. Esther – the hidden one – clandestinely serves as the agent of God and secures the well-being of our Nation.

However, Purim is not only about salvation that arrives from a “hidden” place. After the miraculous and God-directed events, the Jewish people are instructed to read the Scroll of Esther in “every location, in every language and in every era”. What was once a tale engulfed in mystery, now becomes the Megillah – a Hebrew word closely related to the word “Galuy”, which means “apparent and visible to all”. Purim becomes a time to reveal to all — to trumpet loudly and clearly — that God remains active, engaged and involved in our lives.

As we prepare to celebrate Purim, I pray that we might enjoy both the playful and transcendent aspects of this festival. And in so doing, inspire our children — and our children’s children — to participate in perpetuity in the celebration of this unique and powerful festival.

Carnie Shalom Rose serves as the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair of Congregation B’nai Amoona in St. Louis.