Purim - A Good Reason to Smile
According to tradition, Purim is a time to rejoice -- even to get a bit giddy. Sometimes, however, it is hard to feel joyous "on command." Social analysts have documented the phenomenon of holiday depression, where the expectation that one will be happy simply because a holiday occurs may conflict with the real-life situation of the celebrant, which may not be happy at all. Still, there are many good reasons why Purim should, and does, gladden the hearts of those who take advantage of its rich possibilities.
In celebrating the holiday of Purim, one's personal "mood" is almost beside the point. The holiday commemorates the survival of our people, and it is our task, communally, to keep this memory alive in order to pass it down to succeeding generations. While we certainly are called upon to praise the accomplishments of a few brave, creative, and committed individuals (in particular, Mordecai and Esther), the true meaning of the holiday rests in the fact that the Jewish people as a whole were able to withstand a particularly hostile enemy (Haman).
Purim celebrations often include the donning of costumes, which allow individuals to step outside of themselves and role-play. Queen Esther herself donned a costume and assumed a role in order to carry out her uncle's plan on behalf of the entire Jewish people. In fact, we role-play everyday, putting on office clothes during the day, "at home" clothes when we are relaxing with our families, and Shabbat clothes when we go to synagogue. Sadly, we may not always feel like wearing the particular "costumes" each responsibility dictates. Purim, on the other hand, allows us to lay down our more predictable garb and assume an identity of choice. We do not get that chance very often.
There are many traditional customs associated with the holiday of Purim that are, in themselves, pleasurable. The practice of matanot l'evyonim, giving gifts to the needy, is a mainstay of the festival; and the giving of tzedakah tends to bring us positive feelings. While many of us give tzedakah throughout the year, needing no special excuse to do so, Purim requires that we perform this act at a specific time, providing at least one opportunity for us to feel good about ourselves and our ability to make a difference in the lives of others.
The requirement that we exchange packages of food with friends and neighbors (mishloah manot) also has happy ramifications. At a time when our lives are increasingly hectic, we must seize every opportunity to build time in our schedules for those near to us. In a generation in which self-insulation is the norm, Purim insists that we take advantage of the holiday to strengthen social contacts -- indeed a pleasurable activity.
For those who attend Megillah reading, as we are commanded to do, the holiday of Purim offers an enjoyable experience where we can shed our inhibitions, booing and stomping loudly at the name of our common enemy. Even more, we are often fortunate to attend these readings together with our families, spending the kind of quality time that connects one family member to another.
Finally, while all of the above are sufficient reasons to kick back and enjoy the holiday, we have an added "bonus." By observing the customs, taking advantage of the holiday's unique rituals, and getting into the spirit of the occasion, we are actually working to pass down our traditions from one generation to another.
What's not to smile?
Rabbi Epstein is the Executive Vice-President of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the association of Conservative congregations in North America.