Even before he was The Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” Jeff Bridges was the dude. In 1982, he had a fantastic line in the movie, “Tron,” where he was told to be serious and stop fooling around. His deadpan response was, “With me, fooling around is always serious.” It's a great lesson for all of us: to take our fun seriously. It's an even more significant lesson when you consider the holiday of Purim. It's a holiday with a lot of fooling around, but it is also deadly serious.
Purim, which derives it name from the word for casting lots, is a Jewish holiday in which we recount the story told in the book of Esther. Despite what is often conveyed to children, it's not the nicest of stories. It takes place in ancient Persia under the reign of a king, Ahaseurus, or Artaxerxes the Second, who is depicted as more than a bit of a rager. It begins with a feast that has been going on for several days, when the king calls for the queen, Vashti, to appear before his guests to show off how beautiful she is. When she refuses, she is exiled by the king. After the king sobers up, he realizes that he misses his queen, or at least he misses having a queen, so a call goes out to the kingdom for beautiful young women to present themselves to be the new queen. It’s the ancient Persian version of American Idol, but a) the judge may have combined all the best and worst aspects of the entire Idol panel and b) with a lot more implied sex.
The woman who is selected is the titular heroine, Esther, a Jewish woman who becomes the Queen of Persia. While she is the queen, the Prime Minister of Persia is a man called Haman. He is identified as an Agagite, a descendant of Agag, the last king of the Amalekites who was executed by the Prophet Samuel. The Amalekites were enemies of the Jewish people since the Exodus from Egypt when the Amalekites attacked the Israelite column from the rear where the very young, very old, weak and infirm were. While there was a commandment in the Torah to wipe out the Amalekites entirely, it wasn't done very well. Haman demands that all bow down before him, but a man named Mordechai, who is the uncle of Esther, refuses to do so. In an example of an extreme overreaction, Haman arranges for a date to be set when all of the Jews in Persia will be killed.
Long story short, Haman’s plot fails in no small part due to Esther pointing out to the king that if Haman does succeed, she will also be killed. Since the king’s initial decree can’t be rescinded, a new decree goes out that the Jews of Persia may defend their own lives and property. In the fulfillment of this decree, a lot of people die violently. By the numbers given in the book of Esther, it’s many thousands of people who are killed in the fighting. More than any other holiday, this exemplifies the pattern of “they tried to kill us, they failed, let's celebrate!”
And we do celebrate, as Purim is one of our most joyous holidays where people wear masks, cheer for the good guys and boo the bad guys. Attending a Purim service is a raucous and joyous celebration for both the young and the old. And some people take it exceedingly seriously—treating Purim celebrations as seriously as they take the fasting, prayer and atonement that mark Yom Kippur, the most solemn and joyous Day of Atonement! Much like Jeff Bridge’s character in Tron, for us, fooling around is serious!
In a little over a week, we celebrate the holiday of Purim, the ultimate expression of “work hard, play hard” in the Jewish calendar. There are only four commandments associated with Purim (hearing the scroll read, having a celebratory meal, gifts to the poor and gifts to your neighbors), and they’re all a combination of serious effort as well as incredible joy. In that sense, it takes “work hard, play hard” to the next level. “Work hard, and play seriously.” It’s not simply about the frivolity, but about the message that goes into it. “Playing hard” isn’t and shouldn’t be about going as hard as you can until you hit the wall and can’t go any more. (There is a Purim story about that too—it doesn’t end so well.) That’s not playing hard, that’s living hard.
Going into Spring Break, we know that we’ll play hard against UNC on Saturday night. But when we relax and play over break, let’s do it seriously. Let’s follow the wisdom of Jeff Bridges and play seriously, knowing that we have a well-earned break that we shouldn’t need another week to recover from. Instead, let’s take it as a time to rest, recharge and play in ways that restore us so we come back to campus ready to work hard again. Play like you mean it, and love it.
Jeremy Yoskowitz is the campus rabbi and assistant director for Jewish life. His column runs every other Thursday. Send Rabbi Jeremy a message on Twitter @TheDukeRav.