Rabbi Gary Pokras
Purim is unique among all the Jewish holidays. One might think it is because we are commanded to drink to abandon, until we are so drunk, we cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai. Or it could be the many delicious Hamantaschen we enjoy, or humorous and sometimes wildly creative spiels that retell the Purim story.
These are certainly things that are specific to Purim, but they are details of observance rather than meaning. What makes Purim utterly unique among other Jewish holidays is that Purim is the only holiday entirely focused on the Diaspora experience. Every other holiday, in one way or another, references our relationship to the Land of Israel.
The book of Esther takes place in ancient Persia, without any mention of Israel. Furthermore, it is the only book in the Jewish bible which makes no mention of God. While we laugh our way through Purim, we also confront an underlying historical question our people have repeatedly faced. In the Diaspora, we live at the mercy of the host countries where we make our homes. We may be active and even proud citizens, such as Austrian Jews in the 1920s and 1930s, but without Jewish sovereignty of our own, we are always facing potential and sometimes immanent risk. Farcical as it is, the book of Esther describes a time when the Jews of Persia fell from safety to danger, and how – even when God seemed hidden – we managed to survive and then thrive. It is the ultimate holiday expression of the Jewish joke: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.” It is also an early expression of what Abraham Joshua Heschel taught when he said that we should “pray as if everything depended upon God, and act as if everything depended upon us.”
Sometimes, when things are dark, laughter is an act of courage. Purim teaches us to laugh in the face of danger, and to act based on what the times require. And, of course, to celebrate what we have, and then eat.
What could be more Jewish than that?