But the greatest thing about Purim in Jerusalem is the reactivation of communal exchange. The streets in my neighborhood today were full of little delegations rushing from home to home: children in costumes delivering little bags of baked goods, candy, wine bottles and fruit baskets to family and friends. The religious obligation of Purim includes the exchange of food items between people – each person or family is required to deliver at least two food items to at least two people. The religious world takes is seriously: It’s a big production – creativity and creative packaging score high, esp. during tough economic times.
I spent the rest of Purim day at home, hosting friends for an ongoing open house S’euda – A Purim Feast (a daytime feast being an additional requirement on this oh so favorite holy day). From noon on, friends come through, each with a bottle of wine and some kind of food item. A. brings a fresh plate of pancakes with a bowl of whipped cream, dressed in his mother’s purple jacket and a giant pair of purple sunglasses. M., a pirate, brings a bowl of passion fruits. S. brings trays of fresh gefilte fish. My mother brings fresh baked cinnamon cookies in a pretty porcelain dish. The feast lasts into the night. People come and go, we laugh a lot, catch up with friends, meet new ones. It was a great way to spend a day and a great reminder of how vital gatherings like these are, esp. in this digital age and esp. in times of stress, fear, economic pressures. Facebook is fantastic – but fresh gefilte offers nourishment of a deeper level, responding to our real craving for ‘real’ gathering, for the public intimacy that reminds us of what ‘we’ is all about.
The human yearning for collective celebration goes way back and is manifested in millions of ways. ‘Party planner’ may just be the world’s third or fourth oldest profession. One of the most successful but problematic parties in the Bible happens to be at the heart of this week’s installment of Exodus. Ki Tisa brings us the Golden Calf, one of Judaism’s early attempts with the subsequently reviled act of communal revelry.
Context: Moses has been gone on the mountain for 40 days and the people of Israel are impatient, tired of waiting for absent leadership; they pool their jewelry towards the construction of a unifying golden totem in the shape of a young bull. They call it “God”, place it in the center of the camp and prepare to party:
“And they rose up early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to make merry.” (Ex. 32:6)
‘Make merry’ is the key phrase here. In Hebrew ‘Le’tzachek’ – translated elsewhere as ‘to make sport’, ‘laugh’, or ‘revel’. It’s a loaded word from other Biblical references that often hint at sexuality and ‘play’. A valid translation may also be ‘fooled around’. Either way – they were having a pious party – celebrating what to their minds was a satisfying unifying factor, a cause for celebration. They may have gotten it wrong in the iconography department, but those who made merry that day in Sinai score high points for successfully satisfying the primal human yearning for a sensory experience of the sacred. Peter Pitzele reminded me when we studied this story last year that revelry and revelation are closely connected in this story; almost complimentary actions, or perhaps, cause and effect. Had I been there, would I have reveled along? Probably. I like a good party. I crave that nourishing sense of ‘we’ that is sometimes found on the dance floor or around a dinner table or on a balcony in Jerusalem balcony one fine March day.
By 10pm all the guests have left, the full moon hangs over the balcony, and the live music from the Yeshiva next door is still blaring: a very interesting version of Hava Nagila. 12 hours later and these guys are still reveling on. I salute their devotion, put in earplugs and pull the plug on Purim 2009.