Purim Lament

While a famous Rabbinic teaching connects the joyous, raucous holiday of Purim to Yom Kippur, a time of physical restraint and spiritual sincerity, no such connection is made with the other great Fast on the Jewish calendar: Tisha B’Av. The salient reason is that fasting on Yom Kippur is ultimately an expression of joy and faith, while Tisha B’Av is the only day on which not only food is forbidden but any trappings of joy, even Torah study or uplifting prayer itself. In fact, in direct contrast with the exhortation Misheniknas Adar Marbim B’Simcha, the beginning of the month of Adar (in which Purim) falls brings greater happiness, there is a pronouncement that the month of Av comes along with an anticipatory diminishment of joy. 

Yet, opposites always call to each other. Extremes are fated to meet.  

This year, for reasons close to home and in Israel, where my heart visits often, many are feeling difficulty in fully embracing both the frivolity of Purim and the literal recounting of survival of archvillain Haman’s plan to destroy us. After Haman is hanged on the gallows, though, several chapters remain to relate the entirety of the killing of Haman’s children and thousands of other would-be accomplices, several times emphasizing the appeals to the King to allow the violence to continue as some Persians convert to Judaism out of fear of further reprisal. The enormity of the slaughter and the description of an impossible level of power attained by Mordechai and Esther lead us to understand the Megillah as farce and treat it that way. That is easier to do, though, when not in the aftermath of feeling such profound losses from cruel attacks on Jews by Palestinians, greeted with joy and sweets and dangerous rhetoric and acts of violence by Jewish Israelis on Palestinians, destroying lives and livelihoods in vengeance. This dangerous escalation underlines how Purim has been, in some places and some communities, an occasion for glorifying acts of massacre.

I find myself unable to fully embrace the joy and light of Adar without moving through the darkness of Av.

G*d’s name does not appear in Megillat Esther, making its story of redemption that much more remarkable. Eicha, Jeremiah’s Scroll of Lamentations, on the other hand, is replete with the name of G*d even as it describes the landscape barren of G*d’s presence. If Purim teaches us how absurd and hidden the ways of miracles are, Tisha B’ Av reminds us that even in a world with G*d on our lips, there is suffering.

Eicha comes from a place of personal and national heartbreak. The Holy Temple is destroyed, and Jerusalem has fallen. However, the desecration described focuses not on stones or sacred objects but on human beings. The bodies of young and old slain, the desperation of those left alive, and the despair of all who once looked to Jerusalem as the abode of a G*d who would protect us and now see only the evidence of Divine anger and abandonment.

The wail of Eicha’s chant is achingly close to the lilt of the Megillah as if both are made more poignant by the glimpse that disaster and triumph are separated so thinly. There is, in fact, a verse early in the Megillah that uses Eicha trope in telling of Mordechai’s history of being exiled after Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem.  Switching from one to the other is difficult because of the similarity, not the difference.  

I propose using this same Eicha trope at the other end of the reading, in chapter 9 for the verses that move beyond the joy at the reversal of Haman’s plot and the permission to fight and even kill to defend ourselves. These verses (9:5-16) that detail this killing, including Haman’s sons, and the enthusiasm with which it was taken up over and beyond defense and establishing the security granted to the Jews by decree.  

The intention behind switching to Eicha trope is not to neutralize or cast a pall on the celebration of Purim itself or even to deny the appropriateness of Jews using force against those who are seeking to destroy us. For me, the connection to Lamentations is more specific to what makes Tisha B’Av a time for diminishing joy: the deaths of human beings that comes about because the image of G*d in each person is degraded and discarded. For so many enemies to die at the hand of the Jews is not our triumph. Like the Egyptians whose suffering is removed from our glass of wine at the Seder, we can afford to acknowledge the blood spilled on that day on which we survived.

The irony of Purim is that, while it is the ultimate Diaspora story, it describes a dominion over enemies that more closely parallels the power of the State of Israel. Yet that power, even in the modern state, is still tinged with the fear and anxiety of the Diaspora.  For this reason, even though the city of Jerusalem and its holy precincts thrive again, we are reminded that we are far from the prophetic visions of a house of prayer for all people or even a city which no longer laments the loss of her young and old as it was on the 9th of Av in the days of Jeremiah.

Purim is a necessity in our world, a reminder that there are miracles to be had even when the name of G*d is not found and that we must rejoice or even joke in the face of dark times. We celebrate Purim knowing that even as we were saved from the unimaginable, we also leave in our wake what is equally hard to imagine. This year is the year to let ourselves hear the echoes of that part of the story in the familiar yet jarring melody of Lamentations before recognizing the enormity of what it means to not only survive but thrive. Purim, a day of gratitude and celebration, can also be a day to embrace the responsibility of wielding the kind of power that earlier generations only spoke of in fantasy. May we see a real transformation from mourning to the fulfillment of the Megillah’s blessing of light, joy, happiness, and honor. For us and for all.

Send this to a friend