This week's portion: God's afterimage, and letting our light shine
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Purim Katan: a koan of a festival

In a leap year, as previously noted, there are two months of Adar. Each month of Adar has a 14th. On the 14th of the second Adar, we'll celebrate Purim. On the 14th of the first Adar, we celebrate "Purim Katan," "Little Purim." Because leap years arise only seven times in every nineteen-year cycle, Purim Katan is a relatively rare occurrence. So what does one do on Purim Katan? The rabbis of the Mishna tell us the following:

There is no difference between the fourteenth of the first Adar and the fourteenth of the second Adar save in the matter of reading the Megillah, sending mishloach manot (reciprocal gifts of food), and gifts to the poor. (Megillah, 6b)

Let's unpack that. The Mishna is telling us that there is no difference whatsoever between the two Purims -- except the actual acts whose performance signifies Purim! On Little Purim, we don't read from the scroll of Esther, we don't send mishloach manot, and we don't give charity to the poor. So what can it mean to say that there is no difference between them, when at first glance it appears that they have nothing in common save their name? (I can't help thinking of the quote from The Muppets Take Manhattan: "It's just like taking an ocean cruise, only there's no boat and you don't actually go anywhere.")

But I think we can find, in the koan of this invisible festival, a deep teaching.

Sometimes our celebrations take visible forms. Reading the megillah, dressing in costume, making noise to drown out the name of Haman -- sending mishloach manot, and feeding the poor -- these are the visible external signs of Purim, just as eating matzah and telling the tale of the Exodus are the visible external signs of Pesach, and eating dairy and studying all night are the external signs of Shavuot, and so on. The external manifestation of each holiday does matter! The physical acts which embody the observance of a festival help us experience that festival wholly.

But sometimes we can evoke the emotional and spiritual valance of a celebration without actually doing the acts we associate with the holiday at hand. Imagine if, a month before Thanksgiving, you had the opportunity to spend a day meditating on gratitude and family, thinking about the festive meal you were going to prepare and enjoy, imagining your dinner table and the people who will join you there. You wouldn't actually make the turkey or the cranberry sauce, but you'd think about them, and you'd contemplate gratitude and thankfulness and what role those spiritual states play in your life. How might that change your experience of Thanksgiving a month later?

That's the invitation of Purim Katan: to spend the 14th of Adar I meditating on the deep mysteries of Purim (the God Who is hidden from the simple text of the megillah, but plainly manifest all over the story; the queen who pretends to be something she isn't in order to preserve and celebrate who she truly is; the need, once a year, to ascend to a place where binary distinctions, like those between Haman and Mordechai, are no longer relevant) in order to begin to prepare ourselves for the festival that's coming, so that when the festival gets here, it's different for us than it otherwise might have been.

There are a couple of tiny ways in which Purim Katan is traditionally marked. We don't say tachanun, the (weekday) prayers of repentance, on Purim Katan. The tradition also prohibits fasting on this day. And many sources argue that there is an obligation to celebrate and rejoice. One d'var Torah I found online, written by Greg Killian, makes the point that "Purim Katan has no halachic requirements. Whatever we do to increase our joy on Purim Katan, we do because we want to, not because we have to."

Here's a teaching from Rabbi Moshe Isserles, known as the Rema. (This teaching is based on a talk given by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; I found it online here.) The Rema begins his commentary on Orach Chayim, one of the sections of the Shulchan Aruch (a central text of Jewish law), with a quote from Psalm 16:8 -- "I place God before me constantly." Later in his commentary, on the subject of Purim Katan, the Rema writes that in his opinion, it is not obligatory to feast on Purim Katan, but one should still eat somewhat more than usual, quoting Proverbs 15:15 "And he who is glad of heart feasts constantly." Note the two usages of the word "constantly."

The sages tell us that his first use of the word "constantly" (in the quote "I place God before me constantly," shviti Hashem l'negdi tamid, which I've written about before) is understood to suggest reverence for God; his second use of the word "constantly" (in the quote "he who is glad of heart feasts constantly") is understood to suggest joy. He mentions reverence first because it's a necessary precursor to doing mitzvot; he mentions joy second because joy is the natural outgrowth of doing mitzvot. What strikes me, reading this, is that there are no active mitzvot associated with Purim Katan. This holiday challenges us to experience the shift from reverence to joy without actually "doing anything."

Purim Katan begins this Thursday evening. How might you choose to mark this rare minor festival -- how might you reflect on the Purim story's teachings, and increase your sense of joy, so that in thirty days' time the observance of Purim itself can be more meaningful and more sweet, and so that your reverence can transmute directly into joy?