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Purim – A Festival that Breaks with Convention/ Gili Zivan

I am going to travel back in time to memories of my childhood .  .  .  I am a small child, about 6 or 7, wandering the paths of the southern kibbutz where I spent my childhood, dreaming of the magic moments awaiting me.  From Chanukah, when the rains are still coming down in all their strength, I am already pondering the fateful question, "What should I dress up as this year?"  From Tu BiShevat, I am already counting down the days to the big holiday .  .  .  spending entire days in imagination and stories, in which everything was permitted and there were no limits to fantasy .  .  .  I feel part of an enchanted story, full of excitement in anticipation of the masquerade, the reading of the Scroll of Esther and the noisy interruptions at the mention of Haman's name, sending tasty portions to friends, and especially the fanciful "Purim Fair" held in some old hayloft or a fruit shelter emptied for the holiday and transformed beyond recognition.  And every year at the close of the holiday, I would cry my eyes out because this wonderful festival had already ended and we had to go back to the dull routine.  How did this favorite holiday of mine become just "another holiday," without any great excitement and perhaps even, to speak truthfully, a holiday that I just want to "get through in one piece"?  What happened to the soul of the girl whose happiness knew no limit on the Festival of Purim? 

I admit it: I've conformed to the established social norms.  Dress up in costume?  Put on make-up until I'm unrecognizable?  Break with social conventions?  Drink and laugh ecstatically?  No, this is no longer for me.  The Festival of Purim is a holiday for children.  Most adults, me included, find it difficult to feel comfortable in it.  Why?  Perhaps, because we have forgotten how to depart from the accepted social order of "good behavior".  Perhaps, because we have lost our spontaneity.  Or perhaps breaking with social norms threatens a dignified posture? 

Michal, the daughter of King Saul, also found it difficult to see David dancing and twirling before the Ark of God, as the Bible describes: 

"Michal, Saul’s daughter, looked through a window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.  .  .  And Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, 'How glorious was the king of Israel today, who uncovered himself today in the eyes of the his servants' slave girls, as one of the riffraff shamelessly exposes himself!'  But David said to Michal, 'It was before the Lord, who chose me over your father, and over his entire house, to appoint me prince over the people of the Lord, over Israel; therefore I will play before the Lord.  And I will make myself more contemptible than this, and will be abased in my sight; and as for the slave girls of whom you have spoken, of them I shall be held in honor'" [II Sam. 6:16-22].

David explains to Michal that someone who really stands within his faith, someone who recognizes his own worthlessness before the Creator of the World, can dance and twirl to the end, without social boundaries.  By contrast, someone who serves the gods of social convention cannot allow himself to act crazy, to play and laugh without restraint, because immediately the thought, "What will people say?" restrains every open and spontaneous outburst.  King David was willing to empty himself of such thoughts and be thought socially undignified, one of the "riffraff."  True dignity, so it seems, is to be found specifically in those who do not think highly of themselves, and "as for the slave girls of whom you have spoken, of them I shall be held in honor."  It seems that without laughter, an essential foundation of our lives gets lost. 

If we return to the story I began with, we remember that children, who do not think highly of themselves, can let themselves rejoice with utter abandonment, and dress up and swoop into delight, whereas we adults, who are subject to the ruling annihilating glance of "the other" (whether this glance is real or imagined), act out of an awareness that "This is not dignified! or "How embarrassing!"  We are no longer able to make fun of ourselves. 

We who pride ourselves on our dignity have a hard time "letting our hair down" enough to let wild laughter enter our lives.  Perhaps the holiday of Purim teaches us that we need to respond to the voice that challenges clear boundaries in order to be able to bring a lively spirit into the routine of our lives.  Every once in a while we need to introduce the reversing glance of "upside down" into our lives in order to be able to be renewed. 

In order to see our society from the outside, we need sometimes to put on a costume.  In order to encounter our desires honestly, we sometimes need to dare the unconventional.  In order to create, we need to unravel the "social order" and to make "abnormal" connections, if only for one day a year. 

The poet Rivka Miriam writes something about the laughter of Sarah ("And Sarah laughed within herself" – Gen. 18:12) that in my view is not only an interpretation of a biblical text, but also good advice for a life of joy and creativity: 

"Sarah was barren because she did not know how to laugh.  She always walked behind the broad back of Abraham, and he walked behind the broad back of the commandment.  The commandment is pure and direct, it does not pretend or lose equilibrium – and so too it has no laughter.  It has no loss of poise, and as a result no shaking upheaval, no transgression of boundaries.  Yet only out of such upheaval can begetting come." 

Sarah and Abraham have difficulty begetting children.  Idols and masks they have removed from their midst, and with the statues and masks, perhaps they have also removed play.  Now play, games, laughter – from which come love and sexuality –disturb the order of things.  And yet only from disturbing such order is it possible to bring something new into the world.  In order to bring forth a child, they had to learn to laugh. 

Perhaps for this purpose they also have to don masks, to pretend to be brother and sister in front of Pharoah, until little by little, from the midst of the play, laughter could arise from within them again.  And perhaps through Hagar and her son Ishmael, who was born with the ability to play, laughter was redeemed within them.  Gradually, the presence of laughter and play grew strong between them, and a character was formed, until it accompanied them as a full partner in the encounter with the angels, the very encounter that announced the begetting of their son.  He is the son in whose name is mingled both command and laughter:  Yitzchak. 

Many years later, at a royal distance from Sarah, stands Michal the daughter of Saul, the wife of David.  She too does not know how to laugh.  When David leaps before her, and he plays, twirls and dances, she turns her face from him, and despises him in her heart. 

"And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death."

[Rivka Miriam, "God gave me Laughter," in Ruti Ravitski, ed., Readingsfrom Genesis: Israeli Women write about Women in the Book of Genesis, Yediot Achronot, 2002, p. 138]

Dr. Gili Zivan former director of the Yaakov Herzog Center for Jewish Studies continues to teach at the Center.

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