Imagining a Goldfish-Friendly Purim (from February 2013)

Shalom Sons of Israel!

When I was growing up, the day after Purim was usually a sad day marking the death of the goldfish every child had won at the Purim carnival the day before.

I don’t know if Congregation Sons of Israel ever had one of these Purim carnivals where kids leave with goldfish that die the next day. That being said, outside of the Orthodox world, Purim is often practiced as a children’s holiday: candy, costumes and chaos.

At the other end of the spectrum stands the Orthodox world, where Purim is notoriously a day of dangerous drinking. I would hope that the alcoholic Purim is an adult holiday, but the time I spent in an Orthodox high school made me think the kids drink too—given how many times the school ruled against teenagers drinking on Purim.

I wondered though what Purim would look like if it were neither a children’s holiday nor an alcoholic holiday. What if Purim was a holiday for Jews of all ages? Could Purim produce a less intoxicating culture if the holiday were just a bit sobered?

Suppose Purim was—instead of a one-night (or daytime) extravaganza—three days long. On these days, the community would gather and read a small portion of the Book of Esther (it’s 10 chapters long; it’s tough to sit still that long no matter how few groggers you have). Let’s say that on each of the three days of Purim—after reading and studying the daily megillah reading—your community would spend the rest of each day performing one of the three other core mitzvot of Purim (each beginning with the Hebrew letter memmattanot la’evyonim, giving gifts to the poor; mishlo’ach manot, sending food to friends; and mishteh, having a feast).

I wonder if slowing down Purim to three days instead of one rapid-fire day could help us be more intentional during Purim. Moreover, Purim is a three-day festival sometimes. (In cities surrounded by walls, such as Jerusalem—where Purim is celebrated for two days—we extend the festival to three days if the first day of Purim is Friday; Shabbat isn’t really the right mood for Purim. And if you count the Fast of Esther preceding Purim as part of Purim, then Purim is actually celebrated for up to four days sometimes!)

Jews of all ages are prone to read the megillah (even if it might be more of a raucous than a spiritual experience), and—whether or not there’s alcohol—Jewish communities have figured out how to throw a Purim party and fulfill mishteh. But giving mattanot la’evyonim to strangers in need, or slowing down our busy lives to offer mishlo’ach manot to friends can give us time to reflect on at least two luxuries: (1) how lucky we are if we can comfortably give without expecting to receive in return; and (2) how lucky we are if we can point to our friends. And last but not least, we can have a little mishteh.

So, drinking and dead goldfish? Not my idea of a journey to the spiritual center of Purim. Maybe a little lechayyim, and maybe a small prize at a communal celebration of Purim? Now I think we’re getting somewhere! Purim can include that and so much more.

If you could redesign Purim, how would it look?

I can’t wait to hear your ideas.

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