Small Acts of Kindness for Purim

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A girl in a mask and costume celebrates Purim.

Purim is often made into a Jewish Mardi Gras, but the story of Rabbah and Rabbi Zera invites us to look at a darker core of Purim. Credit: CreativeCommons / StateofIsrael.


There’s a curious Purim-related story in the Talmud about two scholars, Rabbah and Rabbi Zera. One year they got together to celebrate the festival and, as is the custom, they got completely drunk. So drunk that Rabbah attacked Rabbi Zera and killed him. On the next day, the Talmud goes on, Rabbah prayed on Rabbi Zera’s behalf and brought him back to life. The next year, Rabbah went to Rabbi Zera and said “Will my honoured teacher come, and we can again celebrate Purim together?” To which Rabbi Zera replied: “A miracle doesn’t take place on every occasion”(Megillah 7b). Once bitten, twice shy.
What do we make of this story? Obviously it’s a fable—not quite a parable, but a piece of imaginative playfulness: we know that (pace the New Testament) once they are dead, people don’t come back to life. So what is the story getting at? Is it a critique of the dangers of drunkenness? Is it an implicit acknowledgement—a millennium and a half before psychoanalysis and Melanie Klein – that aggression, murderousness, is just below the surface of even the most educated or pious of human hearts? And that it doesn’t take much, just a few drinks, to loosen up inhibitions and for this innate and powerful energy in us to burst out in violent and destructive fashion?
Maybe this little Talmudic tale is dealing (in semi-humorous fashion, humour being one of the archetypal Jewish defenses against pain) with one of the complex strands of feeling that lies underneath the celebration of Purim. Perhaps it is addressing the darkness at the heart of the Book of Esther – a book which has as its anti-hero a genocidal character intent on the elimination of a whole people because he finds one of them, Mordecai, objectionable. You will recall how, in the Biblical story, Mordecai doesn’t bow down to King Ahasuerus’s right-hand man, Haman, who’s been raised high above the other officials at the court. In other words, Mordecai the Jew won’t give enough respect to Haman the Agagite.
What we need to remember here is that they are both outsiders within Persia—the Jew and the Agagite. And Haman’s personal insecurity as an outsider is revealed when his feelings about the other outsider spill over into a wish to kill them all off. Haman can’t do away with, eliminate, his own outsider status, however high he rises in the Persian court. But he can project his own demons onto the Jew—as has been done countless times through history right up to the recent attacks in Paris and Copenhagen—and then Haman the Agagite attacks the person (and the group) whose difference mirrors his own. And in an instant, the personal has become the political. And so in this strange book of 10 brief chapters, set in the diaspora (the only Biblical book that is), we have a story filled with banquets and drinking, dancing girls and Oriental opulence—and the beginnings of genocidal anti-semitism.
This is why this little festival, that’s over almost before it begins, is one we don’t really take seriously, maybe can’t take seriously. Jewish communities often make it into a child-focused festival, concentrating on the fun and the fancy costumes. It’s made into a Jewish Mardi Gras, and adults have a bit too much to drink maybe, but not so much that we, like Rabbah in the Talmud, discover the depths of our own aggression. And yet our brief Talmudic tale invites us to look at this dark core of Purim. After all, it tells of one rabbi killing another one: as if to say ‘Jews can be murderous too, we are human too’. And this picks up the last chapters of the Book of Esther which tell us how the Jews were given permission to defend themselves against the pogroms that were, the story says, unleashed against them through King Ahasuerus’s decree—the decree the king agrees to, prompted by Haman’s murderous rage.
This permission to defend themselves comes in a second decree that the king issues—because once the first royal decree is spoken and sealed it can’t be unspoken, revoked. Once the knowledge is out there that genocide is conceivable as a policy of state, it can’t be unthought. All that can happen, the story illustrates, is that the people under threat are allowed to defend themselves. And this they do, and a bloody massacre ensues, as the story narrates how the Jews, the potential victims, become the aggressors and kill 75,000 of their enemies.
This is one of the most uncomfortable texts in the Hebrew Bible. While on Purim we could be celebrating solidarity with other minority groups in the face of anti-religious or anti-minority hatred, we are led to think about the universal nature of human aggression—and that Jews are not exempt from the most primitive of human emotions.
A man wearing a colorful mask for Purim.

To put on masks, to dress up as other than we are on Purim is to see that the secure boundaries we imagine between good and evil are not so secure, that they are liquid qualities. CreativeCommons / Yoni Lerner.


But what are we to make of the punch-line to our Talmudic fable, Rabbi Zera’s wry response to Rabbah’s follow-up invitation to celebrate Purim with him the next year: “A miracle doesn’t take place on every occasion”, each time you need it. One of the things you might know about the Book of Esther is that—and it’s unique in the Hebrew Bible because of this—it does not contain within it the name of God. God is completely absent. The rabbis of the Talmud couldn’t quite cope with this and they hastened to show how although God’s name was missing, God was nevertheless hidden inside the story, hinted at in particular phrases in the text, like “help will come from another place” (Esther4:14). And they pointed out that Esther’s name is closely related to the Hebrew word for ‘hidden’, ‘concealed’, ‘secret’, nistar.
For the rabbis of the Talmud, God is always present even when He seems to be absent. But I think that the writers of the Book of Esther were in a sense more radical than that, more daring. For they created a story, a fable—and it is a fable because these characters aren’t historical figures, the names Mordecai and Esther seem to be based on the names of the Middle Eastern gods Marduk and Astarte—they created a fable filled with a deadly diasporic seriousness.
And the seriousness is that it portrays how a whole people, the Jewish people, need to depend not on the Holy One of Israel, God, and His miraculous interventions into history on their behalf. That’s the Pesach story, the foundational story of national liberation. But that era has gone, say the authors of this subversive book. What the Jewish people have to depend on now is their native wit, their sechel, as Mordecai does when he reads the times right and decides how to intervene; and they need to depend on their personal courage, as Esther does—courage and self-sacrifice; and they need to use everything they have at their disposal, and in Esther’s case that includes her sexual allure. Anything and everything that is human needs to be brought into play, the authors of the Book of Esther show us, to ensure Jewish survival in an era in which God is no longer involved as it was thought He was in days of old.
That’s why the Book of Esther is perhaps the most contemporary of Biblical books. It places Jewish continuity, Jewish survival, in our own hands; and it became a sacred book, part of the Hebrew canon, in a way which suggests that the authors thought: this is how holiness works now, through the human.
And, even more daringly perhaps, the Biblical writers also intuit that this kind of human activity might not be enough to ensure our survival as a people. It may also be the case that our fate, individual or collective, also depends on luck, or chance. Because time and again in the story the events revolve around chance happenings—or what we think of as chance happenings.
Remember those two minor characters, Bigthan and Teresh? They plot to assassinate the king—and Mordecai just happens to be there and overhear them when they are plotting. It didn’t need the NSA (or GCHQ) to listen in to all the conversations going on in the country: Mordecai just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Chance, luck, co-incidence, ‘beshert‘? But the whole story revolves around this incident, this random, chance event. The miraculous—if that’s what we want to call it, though the story doesn’t—is all happening within the realm of the human, the everyday.
And ‘chance’ keeps on turning up in the tale. So there’s the night—and it is placed at the very mid-point of the 10 chapters, as if this is the hinge around which everything revolves—the night when the king can’t sleep (6:1). It could happen to any of us. What is more ordinary than that? A character can’t sleep and he wants something to distract him and he orders the court records to be brought to him, and the page he turns to—chance, fate, luck, the sheer sacred randomness of life – tells about the plot against him, and who gave the tip-off that saved him: Mordecai the Jew.
He was told this before, by Esther, but he didn’t give it a second thought; but now he reads it, absorbs it—and history turns on what he reads that sleepless night. And the lowly Jew is raised up and becomes the new right-hand man—and the high and mighty Haman is brought low, brought low by (irony) being hung up on a tree, a tree prepared (irony) for his mortal enemy. Everything is turned on its head—and in fact the verb ‘turned’, ‘overturned’ (hafach) keeps popping up in the text. Nothing is as it seems. Everything can be turned into its opposite. This is life nowadays. You can use your native wit and your seductive charms and your bravery—and they can take you so far. But you also have to reckon on chance, contingency, luck, randomness—there is no divine Being controlling it all, the Biblical authors suggest.
This is a frightening, disturbing vision. And we might well want to hide from it. To put on our masks, to dress up as other than we are, to drink until we can no longer recognise the difference, as the rabbis of the Talmud decreed for us, between ‘Blessed is Mordecai’ and ‘Cursed is Haman’. To recognise—if only on one day of the year—that murderers can become victims, and victims murderers; that the secure boundaries we imagine between good and evil are not so secure; that good and evil may be categories we need to construct for ourselves in order to exist in society, but we shouldn’t assume too much about their solidity: they are liquid qualities, fluid as wine. And all of this slippage between good and evil takes place in a world where God does not appear as He did in former times, or was said to do. We can no longer depend on miracles to save us—this is Rabbi Zera’s amused but profound recognition.
What we poor, confused mortals are then left with on Purim, in the absence of miracles, is the tradition we retain from the Esther text: it’s to be a time ‘of feasting and gladness, a time for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor’ (9:22). What we’re left with—and celebrate—are small acts of kindness, beyond good and evil.
The dramas of history can sweep us away; but meanwhile what we are left with, humbling and holy, is friendship and generosity and solidarity with the impoverished. It’s all we have to rely on. Let’s treasure it.

Rabbi Howard Cooper is Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, and a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. He is the author of The Alphabet of Paradise: An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life  (SkyLight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont) and blogs at www.howardcoopersblog.blogspot.co.uk.