Drash on Parashat T'tzaveh 2021

Drash on Parashat T'tzaveh

Rabbi Rabbi Martha Bergadine
United Hebrew Congregation of Hong Kong

There is a corny joke that pops up around Jewish holidays – “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” As cliché as this joke has become, admittedly there is an underlying nugget of truth with regard to Chanukah, Pesach, and most clearly, the upcoming holiday of Purim.

Many dismiss Purim as a children’s holiday celebrated with parties, cookies, and by playing dress up. I’ve even known people who detest Purim because it isn’t “religious enough”— as if religious observance must be grim. But like that moldy, old joke there is an important truth at the holiday’s very core –Purim has a profound meaning and fulfills deep human needs. It is completely serious, if not to be celebrated seriously.

In anthropological terms, Purim is a “role reversal ritual,” a time when societal norms about behavior are suspended and roles are turned upside down. Mockery of authorities, satire, and revelry serve to “uncrown” the orderly mores and functions of day-to-day life and, by overturning them, renew community and society. At Purim, this upending of the everyday is cloaked in humor – an essential and holy Jewish value, as the story of Rabbi Beroka Choza’a and Elijah’s discussion in the
marketplace teaches:

While they were conversing, two men passed by and Elijah remarked, “These two have a share in the world to come.” Rabbi Beroka then approached the men and asked them “What is your occupation?” They replied, “We are jesters. When we see men depressed we cheer them up; furthermore, when we see two people quarreling we strive hard to bring peace between them" (Ta’anit 22a).

Since laughter and cheer have the power to ease suffering and heal individuals and communities, Purim, then, provides a tonic of holy hilarity.

And the dress-up and costumes of Purim are not only for children. This too is a reversal. As adults we wear invisible masks everyday. We strive to appear happy when we are down, interested when we are bored. We pretend to be dutiful when we want nothing more than to escape and gregarious when we crave solitude. Wearing a silly mask can for a short while help free us of the masks society imposes. Hiding our faces can allow us to encounter the feelings hidden in our hearts, acknowledge them, and return more whole to everyday life, renewed and reconnected. It is wonderful Purim irony that in disguise we can begin to find our true selves.

Many Jewish teachers have drawn comparisons between Purim and Yom Kippur and found interesting similarities, but it is this sense of personal renewal and reconnection that Arnold Eisen draws out:

Or is the flip side of Purim, the Day of Atonement, Yom Kip-purim “ (a day) like Purim”? On both days, Purim and Yom Kippur, we step outside ourselves completely, one to rise, one to fall. Then we step back in and get back to the business of life – living, with each other, before God, well.

Right now, all of us are in dire need of renewal. Purim brings with it a reminder that it was approximately one year ago that COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Speaking personally, Purim is a significant marker for me as The UJC’s Purim Shpiel was the first congregational event to be cancelled due to the virus. Since then, there has been almost unfathomable loss, grief, and suffering, even for the most fortunate of us. This comes on the heels of devastating fires and political unrest that have stressed and injured many in our region. We are exhausted and numb, our emotional “buckets” running dry.

It may seem impossible to summon the joy Purim demands and yet, in another Purim-like reversal, we must because as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught joy is essential:

Sadness and melancholy are like dust which fall upon the heart of a Jew who is thus unable to burst into flame and be inspired with the love of God ... through joy, the mind is stable and one can think properly; for joy is the realm of freedom.

Sometimes one must become jovial through frivolity and humor. Because of the many tribulations which a person suffers – physically, psychologically, financially – they usually cannot be happy without silliness; by playing the fool in order to be cheerful. The very vitality of body and soul depend on this.  

Joy may not come easily to us this year. Rather than spontaneous emotions, lightheartedness and cheer may be more acts of will. But Purim provides us with the means to turn today’s trials upside down, to put on a silly mask and glimpse our truer selves, and to blow the dust off our hearts.

So put on a wig or funny mask, grab a grogger and boo You-Know-Who, and nosh some hamantashen because Purim is serious business! Chag Purim Sameach!

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