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Opposite Day

One of the great joys of an average day at Hevreh for me is bumping into our ECC students. This past week, as I made my way into the lobby, I quite literally almost bumped into our Sky Room toddler class, who were on their way back to their classroom from the kitchen. 


“Hi Sky Room! Where are you off to?” I asked.


“Who wants to tell Rabbi Jodie what we just did?”“We made Hamantashen!!” they gleefully reply. I ask if they saved any for me, which makes them all giggle and say “no, we ate them all!” and then two of the little ones, look at me and one, with a very charming but devious twinkle in his eye says “My name is Joey.”


They all laugh. We all know that this is in fact, not Joey. 

Joey, who is behind him in line pipes up “And my name is Noah!”, causing Noah in front of him to laugh. 


Like clockwork, the teacher laughs and says “Well, it’s opposite day!” 


Declaring “Opposite day” was a favorite game of mine from when I was a kid and it turns out from generation to generation, the idea of suddenly yelling “But it’s OPPOSITE DAY!” is still wildly funny to your average 3 year old.  This game comes in handy for all sorts of silliness— ask Dad for dessert, and easily turn that “no” into a “yes” by declaring “BUT IT”S OPPOSITE DAY”.  


As it turns out, it feels an awful lot like we’ve  been living in an extended state of “opposite day” for the last nearly six months. Truly, the events of October 7th turned our Jewish world upside down, and in the ensuing 167 days since, the world feels turned inside out; what was once true feels false, what once felt secure feels shaky. 


And here we arrive at Purim, which begins tomorrow night at sundown. 

How do we mark a holiday that ecstatically celebrates “V'nahafoch hu” which is Hebrew for “to be turned on it’s head, or turned upside down” when it is precisely our upside down world that makes celebration post-October 7 feel so fraught in the first place?


This is the spiritual challenge of Purim this year. 


Purim is often dismissed as a holiday for kids, but a closer look reveals profound parallels and meanings in our life today. We think of the reading of megillah, and the costumes and the groggers, but that theme of “V’nahafoch hu”--- that we are to turn things upside down on this holiday calls out for consideration this year. 


The Megillah is replete with examples of ways in which the Purim story turns our expectations on their head . Queen Esther, who first appears as a closeted Jew, ends up saving the Jewish people by standing up to King Ahashverosh. Haman's evil plot to wipe out all the Jews of Shushan leads to his own demise. And the Jews of Shushan, once powerless subjects, become powerful actors, able to control their own destiny. 


After Haman’s plot is revealed, he is killed in a gruesome way so as to be a public example. Queen Esther, knowing that Hamans’ evil plot had been disseminated across the kings’ many provinces, speaks further saying to the king:  “How can I bear to see the disaster which will befall my people! And how can I bear to see the destruction of my kindred!”


And so, the king’s scribes are summoned and letters are written, at Mordecai’s dictation, to the Jews and to the governors and the officials of the one hundred and twenty-seven provinces from India to Nubia: to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, and to the Jews in their own script and language saying: 


“The king has permitted the Jews of every city to assemble and fight for their lives; if any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions—”


King Ahaseurus deploys every resource he has at hand to make this message clear: the Jews will be protected, and more than that– will have full royal support both financial and material to protect and defend themselves. 


The Jews of Shushan are joyous— the text of megillat Esther tells us that amongst the feasting and joyous celebrations: 


לַיְּהוּדִ֕ים הָֽיְתָ֥ה אוֹרָ֖ה וְשִׂמְחָ֑ה וְשָׂשֹׂ֖ן וִיקָֽר׃

The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor.


There is so much light and gladness and happiness and honor, that we read next that 


​​מַגִּ֔יעַ שִׂמְחָ֤ה וְשָׂשׂוֹן֙ לַיְּהוּדִ֔ים מִשְׁתֶּ֖ה וְי֣וֹם ט֑וֹב


Mishteh v’yom tov. 

This was a cause for drinking, and for a Yom Tov: a holy day. 


What follows is a darker side to the Purim story that should haunt us— a part of the reading of the scroll of Esther that so often winds up on the cutting room floor of an abridged reading of the Megillah at your average synagogue celebration. 


Ultimately, we read in Esther 9:1:


בַּיּ֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֨ר שִׂבְּר֜וּ אֹיְבֵ֤י הַיְּהוּדִים֙ לִשְׁל֣וֹט בָּהֶ֔ם וְנַהֲפ֣וֹךְ ה֔וּא אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשְׁלְט֧וּ הַיְּהוּדִ֛ים הֵ֖מָּה בְּשֹׂנְאֵיהֶֽם׃


That on the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power.


The ultimate upside down: we thought they would overtake us, but we overtook them instead. 


The Jews seek vengeance. 


The King’s decree, written as a protection against potential harm, leads to revenge; the Jews “muster against all those who had sought to hurt them” under Haman’s rule.  They go out and kill 500 men in Shushan alone; they kill Haman’s 10 sons. The next day, they kill 300 more.  Throughout the rest of the King's provinces, the Jews rise up similarly, killing 75,000 of their foes. 


But we read that after each account of the death toll of those who would seek the destruction of the Jews, 


וּבַ֨בִּזָּ֔ה לֹ֥א שָֽׁלְח֖וּ אֶת־יָדָֽם׃


They killed their foes but did not “lay their hands on the spoils”--- 

Bizah, translated as spoils, can also be read as “things”

They killed their enemy, but ultimately, could not get their hands around the thing itself. 


What happens when you destroy your foe, but not the idea that animated them? 

This question resonates at this precarious moment.



Perhaps we can answer the spiritual challenge of this Purim, during this time, by turning it on its head once more— v’hanafoch hu.


If we are living in a world upside down, then what will it take to turn it right side up once more? 


I want to suggest that Purim itself may offer us the answers we seek. 


An Israeli friend of mine told me the story yesterday of a woman in her community whose son, a soldier, had been killed fighting in Gaza in December. This woman usually hosts a special Megillah reading each year on Purim, but this year, felt like she just couldn’t— how could her home be one of such joy and simcha?My friend relayed the wisdom that the woman’s husband offered, saying that this is precisely why they needed to host the megillah reading, and that in times of such despair and heartache, they could borrow against future joy. That bringing their community together, reading the story of Esther, would be a loan taken out against the collateral of happier times ahead. 



And so, we borrow against the future— we insist on joy, incremental, small, whatever joy we can find. We celebrate Purim– we remind our children and ourselves that this story of Jewish survival is worth lifting up: we tell the story of our people, and of the reluctant heroine we find in Queen Esther. 


And this year, as we encounter a world upside down, I would suggest that one of the ways in which we can turn it right side up, is to remember the shadow side of our Purim story. To consider well, in light of our current realities, what will bring us safety and security, and what we can do to bring more light into our dark world. 


The book of  Esther concludes with the canonizing of the holiday itself as an obligation for all time, teaching: 

“the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor”


In these days of Purim ahead, perhaps rather than only the customary frivolity, it is those lesser known commandments that we ought to focus on. Sending gifts to one another– and giving monetary gifts to the poor. 


Perhaps, this year we use those commandments as a way to reconnect to our humanity. 


Two suggestions. 

First— mishloach manot. The small gifts of food and drink that are customary to give to friends and neighbors on Purim. What if this year, we offered those gifts to someone from whom we have become disconnected. The last six months have been so divisive. If we are to “nahafoch hu” to turn things on their head-- this is our chance to plug back into to those relationships. To send a small token of affection and care to someone we love but with whom over the last few months, our relationships have become fraught. 


Second, matanot l’evyonim. Gifts to the needy. The commandment to give gifts to the poor is not theoretical. We are to literally distribute money to those in need during this holiday. There is so much need in the world— we know that the need in our own community is great, and we know the need in Israel and Gaza is staggering. I want to encourage you over the next 24 hours to make a gift. At whatever level is meaningful to you. Donate here in the Berkshires to the People’s Pantry or Berkshire Bounty. Donate to World Central Kitchen, one of the organizations that is most effectively providing food aid in Gaza, which now faces the dire possibility of famine. Donate to Leket Israel, Israel’s National Food Bank who has been working tirelessly to make sure that food surplus throughout Israel gets to those in need, especially now as evacuees from both the North and South find themselves living in temporary situations. 


May this Purim be for us a reminder of who we are as a people, and who we want to be.


May this Purim be for us a moral reckoning; the chance to turn our assumptions on their head, to be brave in our commitments to humanity and to the Jewish people. 


May this Purim renew the truth of the words of Megillat Esther: 


La Yehudim hayta orah, v’simcha v’sasson, v’ikar. 


The Jews had light, happiness, gladness, and honor. 

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