When is it appropriate — nay, even encouraged, both socially and spiritually — to turn up at your house of worship in full costume, make a boisterous racket, and proceed to get drunk as a lord?
Well, if you're a Christian (or a Muslim or a Buddhist) the answer is never.
But if you're Jewish, it's Purim!
Even though I'm not Jewish myself, Purim, which begins today at sundown, is one of my favorite religious festivals — and not just because of the costumes and cocktails. It's essentially a story of joy's triumph over oppression with a protagonist who is heroic, clever, daring and a beautiful woman.
Purim commemorates the Jewish people's escape from total annihilation by the Persian Empire in the 4th century B.C., as told in the biblical Book of Esther.
As the story goes, Jews were living relatively unmolested (if still in captivity) when the Persian King Ahasuerus appointed a rather nasty fellow named Haman as his No. 2 man. Haman hated Jews and one palace official named Mordechai in particular, so he persuaded the king to give him the thumbs up on killing all the Jews.
Meanwhile, said king, Ahasuerus was on the prowl, looking for a new queen. He summoned all the single ladies in the kingdom to the palace (as these were the days before eHarmony and Match.com) so he could choose a mate. Hadassah, a gorgeous (and wise) young Jewish woman (and Mordechai's relative), knew about Haman's plan to slaughter her people. So she calls herself Esther, disguises herself so the king won't know she's Jewish, and crashes the party at the palace.
The king, of course, is besotted and falls for Esther. And then, in a bold move that took what Winston Churchill might have called "a pair of Thatchers," invites the king to a banquet where — boldly risking her very life — reveals her true identity. Then she persuades the king to allow the Jews to defend themselves against Haman's attack.
Esther was the bomb. Smart. Brave. Beautiful. Faithful. The total package.
Traditionally, Esther's heroism and the victory for the Jewish people has been marked by a boisterous celebration.
There's a passage in the Talmud that even says Jews should drink on Purim until they're a little more than tipsy. Getting stocious on Purim is a mitzvah — a blessing.
"A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai,' " a passage from the Megillah, i.e. the Book of Esther, says.
The great Jewish scholar Maimonides interpreted the "Purim drunk" passage this way: "What is the obligation of the feast? That one should . . . drink wine until he is drunk and falls asleep from drunkenness."
Other scholars argue that Purim revelers need not be blind drunk, but should drink more than they're accustomed to in order to let their guard down enough to be led by their hearts instead of their heads if only for one day.
L'chaim! But be careful out there. Don't be a Haman! No drinking and driving. Click HERE for Sober Ride resources in your area.
Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl.