Of all the Jewish holidays, Purim is the only one that is celebrated on separate days in different locations. As the book of Esther dictates, smaller towns and cities observe it one day (March 14 this year) and the walled cities a day later. In fact some real party animals spend the first day whooping it up in Tel Aviv and then drive down to Jerusalem to do it all over again on the morrow.
It occurred to me this year that the unusual schedule might be designed to convey a key insight. The fact is that this holiday alone is commemorative of specifically political events. Although there was high-level diplomacy involved in the exodus from Egypt that bred Passover, it was the supernatural that bought freedom for the Jews, not any gab from Moses. But Esther’s success in undoing the Persian law that decreed annihilation for the Jews was the direct function of her outmaneuvering Haman in the political realm. Jews considered this miraculous in the sense of an invisible Divine hand tweaking the seams of history, a message artfully expressed by writing Esther as a series of interlinking events without mentioning the name of God.
That victory is seen as the prototype for all the advances that Jews have achieved in subsequent generations by operating within the political system. Better things happen when Jews engage in the process than when they try to kibitz from the sidelines. In that context, having one holiday for rural and suburban areas and another for the metropolis reflects a nuanced comprehension of political reality. Every nationwide or statewide election, every referendum, every political party, must master the twin tempos of the small town and the big city.
THERE WAS NEVER a prohibition against drinking in Judaism, just a word of encouragement in the Talmud (Pesahim 113b): “God loves a person who does not get angry and does not get drunk.” This was enough to keep Jews sober as a class even when they lived in societies that were more bibulous than Biblical. Yet Purim was one day a year where the book of Esther declared “a day of drinking and joy”; the Talmud (Megilla 7b) asserts that one should become drunk enough that he cannot distinguish between his friends and his enemies. Although the task of defending ourselves engages us all year round, this day reminds us that ultimately God has our back.
It occurred to me this year to frame this in a deeper way. Everyone’s favorite Talmud story (I told this to a Mossad agent years ago and he loved it) describes a Roman tycoon who had captured two Jews after the Roman defeat of Judea in 63 BC. He was taking them home to be slaves and they were traveling slowly in a caravan weighed down by all his booty. The two Jews were conversing quietly, but the Roman could overhear. Although the road seemed clear, one said to the other that the camel ahead was blind on one eye, carrying wine on one side and oil on the other, and the two men with it were a Jew and a Gentile.
Finally, the Roman exploded: “Stubborn people, how do you know this?” They explained, in a manner precursory of Sherlock Holmes, that their deductions were based on observation. The grass had been nibbled on only one side, indicating the blind eye on the other. There was dampness on the ground on either side of the walkway, but one side was drying faster, suggesting wine; the thicker oil takes longer to absorb. And there were signs of human waste both in the road and to the side; it was a Jewish custom to repair to the side of the road to relieve oneself. The Roman speeded up his caravan and, sure enough, soon overtook the exact scene that the Jews had intuited. When he arrived home, he made a party in their honor and set them free (Sanhedrin 104a,b).
By relaying this episode against the backdrop of the transition from Jews having their own country to becoming an exilic population, the message is that it was more necessary to live by our wits when seeking ways to be beneficial to host countries. Purim is one day when we can shut down our brains and get lost in the jumble of friends and enemies, knowing that ultimately survival is divinely ordained.
ONE LAST THOUGHT, this from a great genius who was my mentor. He said that Jews did not like to get drunk, because they saw it as their mission to testify (Isaiah 43:10,12; 44:8) to the presence of divinity, and testimony requires lucidity. However, there is one type of court procedure in which a witness can be accepted even with impaired faculties. That is when a hearing is held to declare a person dead after being missing for some years. If he staggers in to the proceeding drunk, we still have eloquent testimony that he is alive. Today the Jew, by the very fact of his survival, provides an enduring testament to the truth that history, whether in the throbbing pulse of the city or the serene hum of the countryside, does not proceed unsupervised.