Purim is in the air, and I find myself considering what it will be like to celebrate this festival for the first time as an Israeli citizen. And, so far, it feels strange…
Because, you see, I’ve always considered Purim to be the paradigmatic diaspora festival, with a frightening current running beneath the fun and games.
The events that give rise to Purim occur at a pivotal time in Jewish history, when the Babylonian exile is transformed from an exile of force into an exile of choice. After 70 years of praying for, and dreaming of, a return to Zion, the Babylonian Jews are suddenly confronted with the reality for which they have yearned. Persia conquers Babylon, Cyrus the Great allows for Jewish return to Israel, and the exile is potentially at its end.
Faced with this new astounding reality, more than 90 per cent of Babylonian Jewry votes with its feet. The Jews stay put. Babylonian comfort trumps the imperative of return.
Strikingly, it is roughly at this juncture that the events of Purim unfold, dramatic events through which God seems to say:
If it’s diaspora life you want, it’s diaspora life you will get, in all of its glory.
You will live in a world of “Vena-haphoch Hu” — a phrase from the Megillah connoting extreme instability and transience — a world where nothing is stable, where your fate can turn on a dime, where the whims of others will define your destiny.
You will live in a world where I will be hidden, as hidden as I am in the Megillah — God’s name appears nowhere in the scroll — a world in which events are forever bewildering and ultimate outcomes unerringly unclear.
You will live in a world where characters will loom larger than life, for better or for worse:
A world of spiteful villains, like Haman, whose hatred knows neither bounds nor reason; a world of cruel, indifferent leaders, like Achashveirosh, whose reign is for his own comfort and who will allow blood to flow in the streets, as long as it does not spill into the palace; a world of heroes, like Mordechai, who must define the red lines that can be crossed only at the loss of one’s soul; and a world of martyrs, like Esther, who remains imprisoned in the palace at the story’s end, lost to her people who are celebrating in the streets.
So…I can relate to Purim in America, France, Germany, and Poland. But Purim in Israel is a problem for me. What does this festival have to say to a people who are home? Who finally live in their land? Who miraculously are, after thousands of years, in control of their own destiny? The State of Israel certainly faces threats of great magnitude, but they are not diaspora threats. They are not the threats of Purim.
What message will Purim whisper to me this year, my first year as an Israeli citizen?
I find the answer, perhaps, in one of the strangest halachic features of this festival; the talmudic development that feels almost like Purim Torah (a parody of the law).
Based upon the Megillah’s narrative, the rabbis determine that Purim should be celebrated on different days in different places. Their analysis in the Talmud, which carries practical implications to this day, can be roughly broken down into the following points:
• According to the Megillah, the Jews celebrate victory over their enemies on the 14th day of Adar throughout Persia — with one exception. In the walled capital city of Shushan, the battle lasts an extra day. In Shushan, therefore, the celebration takes place only on the 15th day of Adar.
• To mark this phenomenon, we will decree that Purim be celebrated throughout the world on the 14th day of Adar — with one exception. In walled cities, Purim will be celebrated a day later, on the 15th, as a remembrance of the celebration in Shushan.
• But wait a minute! How shall we define a walled city? At what historical point must a city be walled, to be considered a city that will celebrate like Shushan.
• Simple. We will pick the moment of the conquest of Israel under Joshua. Any city that was walled at that moment of history will be considered a “walled city” and will celebrate Purim like Shushan.
• But wait a minute! Historically, Shushan was not a walled city at the time of the conquest of the land under Joshua. According to these rules, Shushan would not celebrate like Shushan!
• Simple! Shushan is an exception!
Isn’t this abundantly strange? Logic would dictate that if you want to mark an event that occurred in the city of Shushan, the temporal yardstick for that commemoration should be based on Shushan. The rule should be: any city that was walled at the time of the Purim story, like Shushan, will be considered a “walled city” and will celebrate Purim accordingly.
Why create a yardstick on the basis of events that bear no obvious relevance to the Purim story? Why force the very city whose experience you are commemorating to become an exception to its own rule?
There can be, it seems to me, only one answer to these questions. From the rabbinic perspective, Jewish ritual time and experience is gauged by only one source, the Land of Israel. Even the date of the Purim festival, the only festival on the Jewish calendar totally rooted in the diaspora, will be defined by the conquest of the Land of Israel. There is no “Shushan time” when it comes to Jewish ritual; there is only “Israel time.”
The message that emerges for diaspora Jewry from this analysis could not be more clear. While each individual community across the globe and across time contributes to the exquisite tapestry of Jewish thought and tradition, the eternal center of Jewish life remains rooted in the land of Israel. Within the scope of the Jewish journey, “diaspora time,” like each community that gives birth to it, is forever ephemeral. Only “Israel time” remains eternal.
And, perhaps, counterintuitively, this message of Israel’s centrality is the perfect message for my first Israeli Purim, as well. For I will celebrate this diaspora festival as never before; deeply appreciative of the Jewish journey that has brought me to this moment, but even more appreciative that my journey has brought me home.
Shmuel Goldin, who was the senior rabbi at Congregation Ahavat Shalom in Englewood for 30 years, made aliyah last fall. He now is that shul’s rabbi emeritus and senior scholar for Nefesh B’Nefesh.