Masks and Flasks, Love and Light

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When I finally got back to my Upper West Side apartment at the end of the day the planes hit the World Trade Center and the world changed forever, there was a raging party at the Underground, a bar on my corner. I heard the pounding bass from almost a block away, and as I got closer I saw windows trembling and drunk men and women pouring into the street shouting “Carpe Diem!” Having spent the day counseling an endless stream of distraught people who walked into the synagogue desperate for a sense of stability, a way to help and answers to unanswerable questions, I was shaken by the cognitive dissonance between catastrophe and celebration.

The sudden realization of the capriciousness of life leads some to search for meaning and comfort among the faithful, while others surrender to the meaninglessness—determined to eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.

Purim, considered by some the most electrifying day of the Jewish year, instructs us to do both. For one day, we come face to face with the chilling reality that no matter how hard we work to control our lives, how diligently we plan and prepare, life is dramatically and inescapably unpredictable. “Life changes fast,” Joan Didion writes. “Life changes in the instant.  You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” Or, in the language of the
, on a whim the Jews of Shushan saw their whole world turn upside down—“grief turned into joy, a day of mourning into a day of celebration.”

The reversibility of fortune, the capriciousness of life, is a message Purim shares with Yom Kippur. Known in the Talmud as yom k’purim, “a day like Purim,” Yom Kippur compels us to reflect on the unavoidable uncertainty of our lives. But on Yom Kippur we dive into this terrifying reality with austerity, reflection and spiritual wakefulness, whereas on Purim we respond by celebrating, imbibing and masquerading.

Posted on March 14, 2011

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