Wednesday, February 27, 2008

642. Mirror

"Until you don't know..."
--Talmud (Megillah 7b)

I'm taking a class on Purim, which will arrive in a few weeks. Take a poll of anyone who ever celebrated this holiday, no matter their age or background--they'll remember a day of costumes, silly plays about Queen Esther, and possibly large amounts of alcohol. (Me, I proudly made the signs every year for the Hebrew school play. That's all I ever wanted to do, as a graphic designer in progress.)

Purim is generally considered a minor diversion before Pesah, when the real stuff happens. But Purim is in fact very serious--more so than Yom Kippur, according to rabbinic commentators. When the Messiah comes, they wrote, all holidays save one--Purim--will disappear. No need to recall exile or redemption, sin or atonement, because the universe will be perfect. But Purim is on a different plane. We will need it even when complete.

Yom Kippur, or (in the plural) Yom haKippurim, means "Day of Atonement." But Yom HaKippurim could also mean day (yom) like (ki) Purim. (The word "Purim" by itself translates as "lots," referring to the random way evil King Ahasuerus chose when the Jews would die.) What does the most holy day on the Jewish calendar have to do with the most frivolous, a celebration not even mentioned in the Torah?

But perhaps it is: the name "Esther" is derived from a word meaning "to hide," and God says in Deuteronomy, "And I shall surely hide [haster astir]." I prefer the less oblique explanation: On Yom Kippur, we alter our consciousness by afflicting our bodies. We refrain from eating in order to reach a different plane of awareness where we hope to gain new understanding of how we missed the mark during the past year, and how we can accept forgiveness and begin anew. On Purim we also alter our consciousness, but skip the body part: we go directly to the brain, whether by drinking (as it is is commanded, "until you don't know the difference" between Haman and Mordekhai, night and day, good and evil--until you revert to a state before creation when all was tohu vavohu, an undifferentiated void), or some other, less destructive method. To this end, we dress in costume so we can act unlike our usual selves and feel free to reveal what we keep hidden. In that process we blur the lines within which we are constrained, and find new truths from deepest parts that rarely see light.

When we look in a mirror, said the rabbi during class, can we be completely certain which version is the real one?


rbarenblat said...

The teaching that Yom HaKippurim is actually a yom k'Purim challenges me, because while I've grown to find Yom Kippur transcendent and powerful and sweet, I've never really "gotten" Purim in the same way. Though I like the idea that on Purim we connect with the reality of how well and thoroughly we mask ourselves -- just as God masks God's-self in the megillah, not directly appearing even once.

alto artist said...

I hadn't thought about your second point, that we are like God when we are masked... a whole other, challenging dimension to consider. We try to "do" Purim at my synagogue in the most outrageous (and often offensive) way possible--it doesn't always work, but the attempt is never dull!