What will it take for each of us to cultivate more basic empathy and compassion towards those who for so many reasons are the ‘others’ in our lives?

Far from a hypothetical question, the recent political climate only highlights what has always been a human challenge, now only made worse by populist media and a self centered consumerist culture.

Can inspired religious narratives step in where political agenda fall short? No, and yes. The bad news is that so many religious traditions are part of the problem. The good news is that more and more religious leaders worldwide are tuned to the paradigm shift, reshaping ancient tribal narratives, taking age-old rituals to task, rebranding and reinventing what were once divisive social ethnic markers into tools for more care, compassion and a greater universal responsibility.

And this is the week for this kind of sacred focus.

For more than two billion Christians worldwide, it’s Holy Week, as the more devout prepare to complete Lent by following the last journey of Jesus on the annual pilgrimage leading to his crucifixion and resurrection. In some communities the days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday are also known as “Passion Week,” as the word ‘passion’ in its original Latin stands for the ‘endurance of suffering’. For others, this is the season for the Passion Play, a theatrical-ritual tradition hailing back to the Middle Ages in Germany, in which the last days of Jesus are acted out in public places and churches. Most recent versions of the Passion include Mel Gibson’s controversial film version as well as ongoing elaborate productions all over the US that draw audiences of thousands all year round.

Over the centuries the Passion Plays have not played out so well for the local Jews, who were rarely in the audience. The depiction of the Jews in many of these pageants was hardly complimentary. Judas and the High Priest were often depicted as big nosed caricatures and the link between Easter and Passover often led to violent attacks and clashes, blood libels inspired by the plays and their hostile messaging. As current events in the political arena demonstrate all too painfully – getting masses to revile the other is not as difficult as we would have liked to believe. Vatican II and other more recent responsible actions on behalf of the church have taken these troublesome tropes to task, thought they are still far from non-existent.

This year Holy Week falls on the same week as Purim, not Passover, and while Passion Plays, often with much less overt Anti-Jewish sentiments or none at all are mounted on stages all over the USA, the Jews have another story and another form of ancient ritual theater on their minds: The Purim Spiel.

Jewish law mandates the public chanting of the Megillah – the biblical Scroll of Esther during the night and day of the Purim holiday, celebrated as the moon becomes full later this week. And while it is not always a full-on theatrical production, the Megillah reading is the closest thing in the traditional Jewish worship arena to the Passion Play. Both narratives are based on the Biblical texts. The scroll is chanted out-loud in festive trope, interrupted by noise makers each time the villain is mentioned, often accompanied by costumes, masks, live music, performances and other forms of stagecraft. Jewish theater is usually traced back to Purim, evolving over centuries to include various forms of parody, social satire and an annual release valve linked to the perennial themes of survival, anxiety and faith.

Like the Passion Play, the end of the story is known, and includes an execution. Unlike the Passion Play, the execution of a single person, in this case the wicked Haman, is then followed by a two-day blood bath. Chapter nine of Esther described the gory details of the massacre of 75,000 conducted by the Jews against their Persian neighbors in an act of self defense with motives that are as questionable as are the historical facts of the tale.

For centuries the Purim fantasy was just that. Power and revenge, a Jewish queen and her ability to control reality was what the exiled Jews all over the globe were permitted to dream about on this holiday of upside down. 

But perhaps it’s time to bring up another focus of the story and the reason for this holiday and its teaching for our lives. 

The main point of Purim is not survival. It’s compassion.
And the Esther Scroll, at best, is a Compassion Play.

The traditional intention for this holiday of topsy turvy is to get to a mindset where one does not know the difference between good and bad, hero and villain. From a mystical perspective this is an invitation for higher ground, whether one gets there with drinking or meditation – blurring the usual judgements we carry between friends and foes, stepping into the shoes of the other for just one night in order to cultivate compassion, empathy and care.

We put on masks and costumes to be less our usual selves and more, if briefly, someone or something other.

We are encouraged to drink or whatever so that our usual views and values are reset, if only on symbolic levels.

And that’s why Purim is for the most part a holiday relegated to the kindergarten. It’s ok to have the kids go through the fun parts of masks and act our the queen and villains. Most of us grown up are uneasy about dealing with our shadows and being public with a mask on that reveals so much about our hidden, inner sense of selves and our yearning for change. The holiday, like many others, became the silly carnival with dark demonic overtones that are usually glossed over and mostly lesser known.

There are ways to bring up the dark side and create carefully compelling versions of the Compassion Play – Purim spiels and parties that radiate joy while also calling us to own our troubled truths. I’m thrilled to be part of one such production this year, as Lab/Shul, my community, along with our friends at Romemu come together in Manhattan to take on Esther, poke fun at the political machine, shake up our fears and push us towards more levity – and love.

But there is another, more compelling and creative way to highlight Purim and walk its daunting task of cultivating compassion.

‘Mishloach Manot’ is the Hebrew term for a Persian custom that may have been part of the original Purim holiday and was appropriated by the Jews who lived there over 2,500 years ago. It means ‘food exchange’ and the idea is for people to look each other in the eye, with mask or not, as we share goody bags containing treats and delicacies with our friends, neighbors and those who need our help, all Purim day long. Another part of the holiday is the mandatory giving of charity – sustaining the needs of those in our midst less fortunate, today, than we.

What better way to cultivate compassion and build community?

As a kid, growing up in Israel, I’d look forward to Purim all year long, planning elaborate costumes and loving the fun. I’d be my mother’s helper as I walked around our neighborhood as troubadour or granny or a royal guard, carrying mishloach manot baskets from one home to another, bringing back the loot in return. Only years later I recognized how central this act was to the meaning of the holiday and to the cultivation of my own life values and priorities, choosing to be in communal service.

So this year, for Purim or Good Friday, let’s take a closer look at the holy tales we’re telling, finding ways to challenge the old us vs. them pieces of the puzzle, create new versions that are all about a greater we, curate parties and pageants that translate the ancient into higher hopes.

Pick two people in your life who would be delighted and perhaps surprised to get a visit and a goody bag. Seek out those in need of a good word, a kind gesture. Walk the talk of sacred scriptures and the golden rule for better, sacred life. Masks may be a bit too much work but goody bags are just a grocery store away, and a whole lot of compassion awaiting.

And, yes, there are bad guys and good guys, those we vote for and those we don’t, haters and killers and grinches galore. There are real reasons to be vigilant and cautious. But if we cultivate compassion, one goody bag and one retold sacred story at a time, we at least have a shot at transcending our base human drive for power and position and celebrate the passionate privilege of a holy-for-all life.

Searching for Spiritual Leadership on the Red Carpet
Amichai's JTS Senior Sermon