Sunday, March 30, 2008

Purim Meets Good Friday

JTA, March 2005

This year, for the first time since 1910, Purim will coincide with Good Friday. While it is tempting to toss aside this as a calendrical quirk, this collision of holy days yields fascinating shadings to the meaning of each.

The Christian Holy Week is supposed to coincide with Passover, with Easter occurring on the Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. But during Jewish leap years Passover is occasionally pushed more than a month beyond that, leaving Easter and Good Friday to contend with Passover’s little sister, that mischievous demi-festival, that masked “Mordy-Gras,” Purim.

Purim is in many ways the anti-Passover.

One is noted for its levity while the other is totally unleavened. On Purim Jews let loose, freeing themselves from restrictions and imbibing until all boundaries are dissolved, even those distinguishing good from evil. On Passover, the key to liberation is through tightening those restrictions, exchanging Purim’s anarchy for a severity of structure so complete that its main meal is even called the “Order.”

It’s part of the natural order for American Jews and Christians that Passover and Holy Week coincide.

That way, the networks can show “The Ten Commandments” and we can have lots of interfaith discussions on the seasonal symbolism of the egg and whether Manischewitz was served at the Last Supper. As far as we know, none of the apostles was asked to pass the hamantaschen.

But this year, although the markets have been stocked with matzot since Presidents’ Day, that prankster Purim is showing up instead. So while our Christian neighbors will be commemorating the crucifixion, we’ll be contemplating the passion of the prune.

And rather than dwelling on those eternal questions of collective guilt, this year, Jews will proudly proclaim, on Good Friday, “We did it! Yep. We hanged him” — speaking of Haman, of course, and not about Jesus.

Although Purim and Good Friday so rarely coincide (strangely, it will happen again in three years, then not until 2113), I am not the first to make the connection between the deaths of Haman and Jesus.

The ancient Aramaic translations of the book of Esther in fact use the word “tzalab,” meaning “crucify,” in describing Haman’s fate, a view echoed by the first-century historian Josephus, and there is doubt as to whether hanging using a noose was even known in ancient times.

During the fifth century, Byzantine emperors forbade the Jewish practice of burning an effigy of Haman on Purim, suspecting that they were doing it as a parody of Jesus’ death.

In the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo also depicts Haman’s death in Christological terms.

And there are strong parallels between how both the Passion Play and on a much smaller scale the Purim story have incited mob violence and hatred toward the Other.

A year ago many Jews feared that Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” would unleash a torrent of anti-Semitism. What ensued was a flood of free publicity, but very little else.

As I left the theater after seeing the film, bristling at the stereotypes perpetuated by Gibson, I looked around at the tear-filled eyes of those sitting around me and realized that they had been watching a completely different movie.

I can imagine that the inverse would be true if Steven Spielberg were to tackle the Purim story. Non-Jews would sneer at the Jews’ gleeful butchering of their Persian hosts, while I would be cheering the last-second salvation of a buzzer-beating God, reassured by the “happily-ever-after” ending too often denied Jews in the real world.

Hitler reportedly banned the celebration of Purim in Poland in 1941 because he understood the power of this story. He sensed that the hanging of Haman could galvanize the faith of Jews in the same way that the crucifixion ignites the passion of Christians.

It is telling that when Christians hear their story, they cry in silence. When Jews hear the Megillah, we laugh and make lots of noise.

We might surmise that if, as Carol Burnett said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time,” then “Purim is the passion plus a good punch line.” Come to think of it, a risen Messiah is a pretty good punch line too.

In any faith, God always gets the last laugh.

According to the book of Esther, “These days of Purim will never cease among the Jews.” From this, the midrash deduces that when the Messiah comes, only Purim will continue to be celebrated.

Perhaps this year on Purim we’ll become more conscious of the tears being shed around us, while at the same time understanding that the laughter ultimately will prevail, for all peoples, on that sunny spring day when hatred dissolves into love and Haman and Mordechai become one.
That will be a very Good Friday indeed.

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