Purim – A question of glasses and happy endings – in ENGLISH, SPANISH, RUSSIAN and FRENCH

Rabbi Marcelo Polakoff, Rabbi of Masorti synagogue Centro Union Israelita de Cordona in Argetina and President of the Latin American region of the Rabbinical Assembly created an educational guide for Purim available to dowload in EnglishSpanish, French and Russian.

Below are some extracts from the English edition :

(Cartoon characters below by Yehudi Mercado, SuperMercado comics)

When Noach started planting, Satan came and stood before him, saying “What are you planting?” Said Noach “a vineyard, whose sweet fruits produce wine that cause the heart to rejoice.” Said Satan “Let us be partners in this vineyard.” “Yes,” said Noach. Satan then brought a lamb and slaughtered it under the vine. Then he did the same, one after another, with a lion, a pig and a monkey, sprinkling their blood throughout the vineyard. That is why when a person drinks one glass of alcohol he is timid and innocent like a lamb, then when he drinks two glasses he is strong like a lion, thinking that none are as strong as he. When a person drinks three or four glasses, he acts like a monkey who dances around uttering vile words, completely out of control. But when a person drinks too much, he acts like a pig, wallowing in the mud and polluting himself in filth (Tanchuma, Noach)  

Make no mistake. I have brought up Noach because it will help us understand the Purim holiday. After all, among all of the things that we have learned as inherent in the people of Israel, one of the most important ones was overcoming tragedies. And Noach has been the undisputed precursor of all the survivors. When it comes to tragedies (or comedies?), the Purim holiday is just the most fitting one. You should not be afraid either. Satan, whose literal translation is “hindrance,” has been present for several centuries in Jewish sources. However, he has been absolutely devoid of all the “satanic” nature that he acquired slowly and patiently outside the Hebrew tradition. He is just a mythical heavenly figure, a member of the court of angels that assists G-d in his divine management, and who is entrusted with very special tasks. In this case, the task consists of teaching us to keep count of the glasses we drink. It is an essential lesson in Purim.

The Lamb – Uncle Mordechai 

I know you know me, but in any case, allow me to introduce myself a little more formally. Even if I was born into a Jewish family, my name, Mordechai, is of Babylonian origin, and it is closely connected to the name of the god Marduk, a hero who was fairly popular in the whole of the Babylon area at the time.

It has fallen to my lot to brush up on the story of Purim for you in a few lines. There is no point in devoting too much time to this, as the story is part of the least understood best-seller ever: the Bible. That is why we will not look at this subject in greater detail.

I could summarize the story like this: A wicked Persian Prime Minister (an ancestor of Saddam, maybe?) decided to cast lots to set the day on which he would exterminate the Jewish people. Within 24 hours, he got the approval of King Achashveirosh, the monarch of the most powerful empire of the time.

That is why I am glad that when this book was translated into Greek in the Septuagint, someone took the time to add a few lines describing my innermost feelings (and Esther’s too). My prayer was included word for word: “It is clear and known before the throne of Your glory, Lord of the Universe, that it has not been out of insolence or arrogance that I did not bow to Haman the Amalekite, but that my fear of You has given me courage to not bow to him, because I fear You, Lord of the Universe. I have refused to do so to avoid putting Your glory before that of men, and I will not bow before anyone except You, for who am I to not bow before Haman? To save Israel I would be willing to kiss the soles of his feet and the dust therein.”

The Lioness – Queen Esther  

We are increasing the level of joy and the number of glasses we are drinking, but we are about to take a spill. Once again we are skating on thin ice, we are walking the tightrope where the story of the Megillah –and of humankind– takes place. So now the story’s heroine, the “queen of the jungle,” comes into the picture. She is the one who risks her life for her cubs (her people) and says without hesitating “If I perish, I perish” (4:16). She is the one whose name carries a great deal of the holiday’s depth: Esther.

Here, condensed into one single verse, we find three of the four main Purim mitzvot. Firstly, there is the idea of feasting. Mind you, it isn’t like the banquets in Achashveirosh’s court, but rather a way of preparing such feasts symbolically.

That is why this mitzvah (precept) about having two seudot (“festive meals”), in the evening and at noon, is complemented by the other two precepts.

The next one is called mishloach manot in Hebrew, and it refers to sending food portions to our neighbors, friends and/or relatives. It is customary to prepare a small basket with two or more sweet snacks or other ready-to-eat foods, which help create a shared feeling of rejoicing at salvation. The gifts to the poor, or mattanot la-evyonim, are motivated by the idea that no festivity is complete if there are people who cannot celebrate it. That is why on Purim it is usual to give money as tzedaka to at least two people, so that we don’t become isolated from the rest of society, especially those who are most in need, at a time of celebration and joy.

The remaining mitzvah is precisely the one that instructs us to listen to the reading of Esther’s Megillah both in the evening and in the morning, preferably from a scroll handwritten by a scribe. Actually, this precept is also insinuated at the end of the Megillah, when it says that all that happened was written in a book, and we are asked to remember and celebrate these events over the generations.

The Monkey – King Achashveirosh  

“When a person drinks three or four glasses, he acts like a monkey who dances around uttering vile words, completely out of control.” So says the Midrash Tanchuma. And it is surely a faithful portrayal of the King of Persia and Media that ruled over 127 provinces and states, from India to Ethiopia.

This capricious and docile monarch is usually portrayed as incapable of making decisions on his own without receiving constant advice from his counselors. He was known as Khshayarshan in Persian and as Xerxes in Greek. The translations into English call him Ahasuerus. His reputation as ostentatious and over-thetop spender, of squandering and extravagance, of alcohol consumption and partying, added spice to his dictatorial regime, as the kingdom’s important decisions were made in an atmosphere of informality, disarray and irresponsibility, always under the influence of never-ending alcoholic drinks. If historians are correct, we’re talking about the son of Darius I, who ruled for around 20 years, between 486 and 465 BCE, since many facts in his biography coincide with what is told in the Megillah.

This lightness that has always prevailed on Purim also upset several neighboring peoples who, in their own terms, have sought to wipe the joy out of this holiday. The Christian Church itself didn’t accept the book of Esther as part of their biblical canon until the year 397. In fact, it was only included after introducing a few corrections and additions that took the edge off it (such as Mordechai’s tefila, reproduced above). At any rate, the accord didn’t last long, since Martin Luther (the same one who urged people to set synagogues on fire with the Jews in them) found this text hostile, because “it is extremely Judaizing and shows too much perversion by the gentiles.”

The Pig – Haman The wicked 

Isn’t it fitting to call him “pig”? Granted, it is offensive, but on the other hand, he deserves it. As Satan warned Noach, at this stage, when a person drinks too much, he acts like a pig, ”wallowing in the mud and polluting himself in filth.” What we still have to find out is what and where are the mud and the filth. Let’s begin by saying that it is due to Haman that this holiday is called Purim. The word pur, or puru, is apparently of Persian or Acadian origin and it means “lots,” because it was by drawing lots that he set the date on which the king should exterminate that annoying people to which Mordechai belonged. It is clear by now that not many things in the Megillah were the luck of the draw.

And here too lies the most profound element of Purim. That is why it is no accident that, as the Talmud says: “When wine is let in, a secret is let out” (Eruvin 65a). Because what can turn a man into a drunken pig is the same thing that can make him a fount of wisdom, and that may be why in the Gematria the word yayin (“wine”) is equivalent to number 70, the same value as the word sod, which means “secret.” Rashi, the commentator, even says that this last passage implies that he who can drink wine and keep a secret at the same time is considered as competent as the Sanhedrin (the council made up by 70 elderly men).

That is why everything is “topsy-turvy” on Purim. The man who prepared the gallows ends up being hanged. The one who was to be hanged rides triumphantly upon the horse of the man who intended to have him hanged. The soon-to-be slain Jews finally kill their enemies. And the list goes on..

Finally, Purim is also the holiday that, in Israel and in the whole of the northern hemisphere, marks the end of the winter and heralds the beginning of the spring. And it is in spring that the magical scene of masks and costumes unfolds, because nature’s revival is a revelation of the hidden miracle of inexhaustible life that, even though it was there, couldn’t be perceived. Life is reborn when what was hidden and what was manifested intertwine and is revealed. When what was so dark lights up. As it is written in the Megillah (Esther 8:16), layehudim haita ora v’simcha: “for the Jews there was light and happiness.”