Judaism: "Upside Down" on Purim
Rabbi Yonah GoodmanThe writer is Director of the Institute for Contemporary Religious Education,...
Purim is a time of removing masks. It's a time when people permit themselves to express their values and their cultural world openly. There are girls who permit themselves to dress in a manner that is not modest. There are boys who permit themselves to smoke, or to play vulgar music at full volume. The "joy of Purim" is sometimes translated into an opportunity to imitate the norms of very low culture. At some schools there are students who sound the battle cry "venahafokh hu" and put on productions with undignified content, turning the idea of "joy" into an excuse to humiliate teachers and educators.
Is this the case everywhere? Of course not. There are many young people who take advantage of this period to carry out amazing chessed (charitable) activity and to bring joy to those in need. Many organize a "shuk Purim" (carnival) for orphans, or go as a group to dance with people on the periphery of life. Others are somewhere in between; they put on productions in the spirit of secular television shows, dress up as movie stars, and so on. They, too, use Purim as an opportunity to "remove" disguises and to reveal their real cultural heroes.
It is no coincidence that "Yom ha-Kippurim" is "ke- (like) Purim". On Yom Kippur, we try to expose the "real me" through a process of awareness and focusing, fasting[yg1] , and prayer. In a certain sense this is only "like Purim" - a weaker version, as it were, because on Purim we expose the "real me" more clearly, and we do so without paying deliberate attention, in the midst of a quest for joy.
In view of this situation, many educators are traumatized by the nature of the Purim festivities that have developed in our schools. They fear the damage that students may cause, the offenses against teachers, the vulgar expressions. Some solve the problem by curtailing the Purim period: they deliberately choose the days leading up to Purim for the tiyul shenati – the annual hike, or for a study seminar. In truth they would perhaps prefer to forego most of the Purim celebrations at school altogether, regarding them as an unnecessary waste of study time, at best, and as culturally damaging, at worst.
But Purim also offers tremendous possibilities. Students can display responsibility and initiative, originality and hard work. Many of the younger generation's strengths and abilities have no means of expression during the relatively passive months of sitting at their desks, and Purim represents an exciting opportunity. It is true that any display of strengths may be dangerous. Educators and parents must guide youngsters so that their abilities will be directed in constructive and positive ways – but woe to us if, in our fear, we prefer our youth to be weak and submissive.
What can be done? Our job is to educate and to challenge.
Most educators do this. They take care to hold discussions in advance about the essence of true joy. Of course, after kids have worked hard and prepared a party with a certain atmosphere, it is difficult for them to accept criticism and to change their plans completely. It is possible[yg2] and desirable, to educate in advance, to share the understanding that true joy is achieved by rejoicing together with others:
"When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he is obligated to also feed the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, along with other unfortunate and destitute individuals. One who locks his doors and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without providing food and drink for the poor and the bitter of spirit – this is not rejoicing in a mitzvah; rather, it is rejoicing in his stomach […] and such rejoicing is a disgrace to them." (Maimonides, Laws of Festivals, 6, 18).
We must challenge our students, well in advance of the holiday, to become the class that will revolutionize the nature of Purim celebrations at the school; to be mature enough to know what true joy is, and to teach this to the younger kids, for whom the difference between bringing joy to those who lack it, and exploding firecrackers and cap guns, frightening people late at night, is not always clear.
Ultimately, kids should be educated to view Purim as a challenge by means of which disguises are removed and what is revealed is an exalted world of values. But in order for them to view this time as a challenge, we too must view it in this way.
We might illustrate this point by comparison to the report card that our kids receive at the end of the school year. A mature approach views the report card as an opportunity to receive feedback on achievements over the past year. The report card is a yardstick that allows me to learn what I have done over the past year, and thereby to plan what I want to do or improve or modify next year.
The Purim period may be viewed in a similar way. It is a certificate presented to parents and teachers, in which our youngsters reveal their cultural heroes (by dressing up as them) and tell us where we have succeeded or, heaven forefend, failed in our education over the past year.
Adopting this approach will help us not to become angry over undesirable behavior, just as there is no point in becoming angry with a mirror even if it shows us an unpleasant reality. What is reflected in the mirror is ourselves, and we should view this as a challenge that helps us understand our educational role and apply ourselves to it so that next Purim might look different.
Moreover, all education starts with setting a personal example. If we want our children to channel the joy of Purim into spreading joy and kindness among others, and not, heaven forefend, into a free-for-all, it must start with the character of our own celebrations as adults.
We must think about organizing a campaign for mishlochei manot (food portions, to be distributed by adults of the community, or teachers at the school!) to people who are on the fringes of society; a collection for matanot le-evyonim (gifts to the poor) to be distributed among the needy in our communities, and so on; groups of parents or teachers who will themselves produce an event to bring joy to those suffering different types of misfortune, thereby conveying a powerful educational message; parents taking their kids to spend a few hours at a hospital, going from ward to ward and wishing patients a happy Purim; teachers who do not view themselves as policemen overseeing the kids' celebrations, but rather as people who are themselves obligated to spread joy.
All such activities broadcast an educational message that is far more profound than any lecture against improper forms of celebration.
The halakha stipulates:
"It is better that a person be more liberal in giving gifts to the poor than in preparing his Purim feast or in sending mishloach manot to his friends, for there is no greater and more splendid joy than bringing joy to the hearts of the poor, orphans, widows, and strangers. One who brings joy to these unfortunates resembles the Divine Presence..." (Maimonides, Laws of Megilla, 2, 17).
This halakha was written for us, too. If we carry it out genuinely, our youngsters will join us and, God willing, we will all experience the fulfillment of the verse, "For the Jews there was light and gladness and rejoicing and honor."