Purim is, in certain ways, the absolute, unequivocal and unquestioned winner of “Most depressing holiday of the year.” The underlying facts surrounding it paint the bleakest possible picture. Consider other holidays
Channukah: the temple had earlier been destroyed and Antiochus is trying to finish the job, but a rag tag band of ne’er do wells rises up and, in the Cinderella story (well, the version where she kills all the bad people) they win and eat fatty food. Awesome. Today, we won’t let anyone “finish the job” because we really appreciate fatty food!
Passover: We were slaves in Egypt and things were bad, but then a charismatic leader inspires us and we, a rag tag band of ne’er do wells up and walk out so that we can complain for 40 years even though we get breakfast in bed EVERY SINGLE DAY! We aren’t slaves like that anymore so the story won’t happen again. And Chopstix delivers.
The two Tus: In Sh’vat we talk about how great plants are, and Av, where ladies, dressed in white, run around in the meadows with no fear of getting their clothes dirty, for lo, they are protected by God and an invisible barrier available now, in new and improved Dreft.
Purim is such a downer because of something that I have missed until this year – at one point, the king, Achashveirosh, enacts a rule that people have to bow to Haman. Mordy refuses and the rabbis explain in Esther Rabba 6:2 that Haman was wearing a symbol of idolatry around his neck so Mordechai didn’t want to bow to idols. Depressing fact one – Jews are put in no win situations.
But hey, he gets away with it. For a while.
Then, in chapter 3, verse 4, the servants who observed Mordechai’s refusal finally tell Haman. Wait – what? He had an idol around his neck. He would have to have been facing the people when they bowed to him so that they would see the idol. How could he not have known that Mordechai was not bowing? Maybe he was not paying attention. Maybe he had bad eyesight. Maybe his people were pointing out that even in the future, Mordechai didn’t intend to bow. Who knows; all I know is that we would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids! Depressing fact two – when Jews are getting away with living their lives according to their faith, others narc on us and get us in trouble. And later, when Haman sees Mordechai doesn’t even stand or move (5:9) he decides to hang the guy. It isn’t that Mordechai didn’t bow anymore – he didn’t even rise. All Mordy was doing was SITTING THERE. Depressing fact three, even when Jews try to lie low and avoid conflict, it finds us.
And finally, when things do turn around, Esther, and her trusted sidekick Mordechai approach the king and ask him to rescind his order. Things are looking up, right? The king sees the problem and will let people defend themselves, right? Not so much. He shrugs his shoulders and says “there’s nothing I can do.” Depressing fact four – the people in charge don’t really want to help us. Sure, he tells Esti that she can think of something, but he wants no active part in helping.
OK, so if this is a depressing holiday, marked by the randomness of a lottery and the unfairness of arbitrary anti-Semitism (all of which echoes in this day and age) then what is the celebration all about?
It isn’t about “God saved us” that I can tell you. But, underneath it all, Judaism has never been about “God did the saving.” We learn in Pesachim 64b, Lo Samchinin Anisa, more popularly said as “Ein somchin al haness”, we don’t rely on miracles. And Purim reminds us that we are partners in our own salvation.
At the sea, the Children of Israel saw the Egyptians behind them and the water in front of them. They could have just prayed. They were supposed to have faith that God would save them, right? But they learned a lesson from Yaacov, who, when faced with Eisav’s army didn’t just pray, he also took proactive steps, sending gifts and preparing for battle. Simple faith isn’t enough! We have to take action. And at the sea, the medrash reports that Nachshon, instead of waiting for a miracle, walked in to the water up to his neck. This act is what triggered the sea’s splitting. The Maccabbees were stirred by the rallying cry of Mi lahashem eylai – whoever is for God is with me. But that cry was a call to arms – faith was demonstrated through action, not a crutch.
Mordechai was a man of faith. He was really informed of all things Jewish, including prayer. But while he dons sackcloth and ashes and cries, he doesn’t stop there. He stirs people to pray and fast. But is that enough? He could have dropped it at that and just let God, you know, do his thang. Instead he tells Esther that she has to act, and act now. Wait, she says, I’m gonna get in so much trouble – can’t we just wait and let the big man in the sky take care of this so I don’t get dead? He says, “NO.” We have to initiate the action, even at personal risk. You have to walk into the sea to get it to split. Yes, you have to pray, just to make it today, but the song doesn’t say “you ONLY got to pray” -- you also have to send gifts and prepare for war. Esther understands this allusion thousands of years before MC Hammer is born (possibly the true Purim miracle) and says “I’ll fast, but I’ll also take action” and it is the action, the plan (the plan was rock solid) which leads to the salvation of the Jews.
So what is the message of this horrible, depressing holiday? Is it that we will always be victims and that when the world conspires against us, we can sit back, do some prayer and rely on God to bail us out.
No, the message is that we can bring about our own survival by being proactive. Give charity, be friendlier and don’t wait til things get horrible and then start praying, expecting miracles. And when things get bad, as they generally do, don’t sit back and cry. Get on up and do something about it.
Purim reaffirms not just that God is God and that he will save us, but that we have to be Jews, rising up and accepting our responsibility, and carrying the burden of acting, being involved like the Maccabbees instead of demanding others solve our problems for us.