This message has 918 words and will take about 5 minutes to read.
We are in the midst of preparing for Purim, a time when nothing is as it seems. Just as we celebrate by dressing in costume and pretending to be someone else, so this Shabbat message is a little different from what it first appears to be. While it looks like the usual email you’re used to receiving each week, it is in fact a special holiday message from my friend and long-time Jewish Federation volunteer leader, Jonathan Berkowitz. I’m sure you will enjoy his unique blend of wisdom and humour. Chag Purim sameach to you all, and a special todah rabbah to Jonathan.
Ezra S. Shanken
Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver
Las Reversal, or a Leap of Faith
By Jonathan Berkowitz
Purim is a deceptive holiday, simple on the surface, marked by laughter, but scratch it and find despair. It might be the darkest and most depressing holiday of the Jewish calendar. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg describes it as a holiday that grew out of Jewish history; he says, “it is the holiday of the Diaspora; it reflects and affirms the experience of the Jewish people living as a minority outside the land of Israel.”
Purim can be seen as a guide to Diaspora life. It takes place during exile. The heroes may well be assimilated Jews. Have you ever wondered about the origin of the names Esther and Mordechai? Esther probably comes from Ishtar, a Babylonian goddess, and Mordechai from Marduk, a Babylonian god. That’s sort of the ancient equivalent of Jews being named Mary and Christopher today. The plot involves a Miss Persia beauty contest to marry a gentile king. But as Greenberg notes, the moral of the story might be that we should never write off assimilated Jews. They appear in times of greatest crises and when least expected.
Purim is a holiday of reversals. Have a closer look at the title of this article. “Las” is Spanish for “the” – Las Reversal is a palindrome; it reads the same forwards or backwards. (And, yes, I know it is not entirely grammatically correct, since “las” is Spanish for a plural “the” but reversal is singular!)
Let’s look at some of the reversals. Vashti is deposed as queen for showing modesty. Yet Esther becomes queen in large part because of her modesty. Vashti is exiled to show that husbands will never again have to take orders from their wives. Yet the king takes orders precisely from his new wife, Queen Esther. The Jews are condemned because Mordechai will not bow down to Haman, the king’s representative. Yet Esther must do almost the same thing when she begs the king to spare her people. The Jews are condemned one instant, and, just like that, reprieved in another instant! A decree of genocide against the Jews turns into a decree to permit the Jews to arm for a total triumph over their enemies.
Speaking of reversals, have you ever looked at the spelling of Purim in reverse? It’s MIRUP. That doesn’t mean anything, or does it? Perhaps you remember, Mir, the Soviet/Russian space station that orbited Earth; it was “up” in the sky from 1986 to 2001. Do you see it? “Mir up” is Purim backwards. Mir is a Russian word that can be translated as peace, or world or village. So from Purim, which means casting lots to determine on which day the Jews should die, the reverse, Mir-up might mean “world peace is up ahead.” We can only hope so! It is a rare hopeful note in the seemingly dire straits of terrorism, torment and treachery in which the modern world is immersed. Not for the first time in history do Jews light the way for the world, with a story of vanquishing evil.
The subtitle of this article is “leap of faith” since this is both a leap year in the secular calendar and in the Jewish calendar. The secular calendar only adds one day but we add one full month. That seems consistent – secular holidays are one day in length, while Jewish holidays often last eight days! Even the “one day” of Rosh Hashanah is a 48-hour day!
In leap years we have Adar I and Adar II, but contrary to popular belief, Adar I is the added month. That’s because Purim is celebrated in Adar II in order to keep the 30-day gap between Purim and Pesach. Why do we add a month of Adar and not a second one of any of the other months? I think it is because the name “Purim” comes from casting lots, and so we need lots of Adar! (It’s okay to groan aloud.)
Those “lots” mean that Purim represents a sort of lottery, or a chance event. And it is chance events – the king’s night of insomnia, the drunken king’s moment of jealousy – that mean the difference between genocide and survival.
Finally, Purim is about the human role in redemption – so God is not present. But look again. The story takes place in Persia. Rearrange the letters of PERSIA to get PRAISE; rearrange them again to get ASPIRE. As we aspire to be righteous, we praise God.
P.S. Reverse “lots” and you get STOL, which is an acronym for “short take-off and landing.” That describes an aircraft that gets into the air quickly and can land just as quickly. I hope you enjoyed my “take-off” on Purim. As I said last year, enjoy noshin’ on hamantaschen, shakin’ your groggers until you’re groggy, and listenin’ to the thrilla megillah.