Divrei Torah / Holidays

Purim Questioning


Purim 5776

We’re all aware that Purim is the only holiday designated to survive the Messiah’s arrival. But we’re not really told why. We find two key figures in the Purim story who are hostile to the advance of the world: Haman and Memucan. Haman arranged with the king for a genocide, which would have erased the Jewish people from history, and Memucan had advised the king to forever subordinate women’s will to the will of men. Rashi says that Haman and Memucan were the same person, and that Haman, by convincing Achashverosh to banish Vashti from the court, became emboldened to beg for the vanquish of the Jews. At that time, all the Jews of the world lived within the Persian empire.  That the holiday of Purim is celebrated in a most non-sacred manner—that we are expected to get drunk, be excessively wild and unreserved (in other words, to behave as gentiles do)—makes this holiday all the more strange. Judaism was created to influence the spiritual dimension of the nations, and here is this supercilious holiday where we lose decorum and assimilate, blending into our invisible distinction. We know more about Purim’s link to Pesach, coming on the full moon of the last month of the year, anticipating Nisan, the seventh month after Rosh HaShanah. Nisan is the shabbat month that begins the first month of Israel becoming a nation on Pesach.

On Purim, the heroine Queen Esther embodies salvation at last, as an instrument of G-d’s Presence among us. She will safeguard the name Israel till time immemorial. It is the women who save our dignity and procure the messianic age. Vashti becomes the paradigm of matrimonial equality. I propose that Purim outlives Judaism because G-d has promised to show the world that His hiddenness is a Holy hiddenness, an ever-presence in disguise. Purim precedes and links to Pesach because Purim provides the protection of G-d’s armour and invisible shield over Israel. The Purim story took place on Pesach. When the Purim lot was drawn, twelve months had passed from the previous Passover. Of course the rabbis say it took a thousand years from Pesach until Purim for Israel to fully receive and actualize the Torah (kiblu v’kimu, Esther 9:27) and to fulfill our own pledge made on Mt. Sinai to perform the mitzvot and await their echo, na’aseh v’nishma (Shemot 24:7). As it says in the Megillah, this was finally a time of light and joy for us: la-yahudim haita ora v’simcha (Esther 8:16).

What has kept the Jewish song constant, no matter our fervor—whether in fevered attachment, or in faint connection—has always been the Shema. Why is “Shema Yisrael” the declamation of every Jew? Our ancestors, our eternal progeny. The sentence doesn’t even make sense. It assumes a lot of footing: “Listen to me! I’m speaking to the whole expanse! Telling you all about G-d! And only in six words.” G-d told Moses to say the sentence as an injunction. Halakha tells us to say this sentence at shacharit and at maariv. We squawk it while hazy at daybreak, and again to end our days (and hopefully our lives.) It’s found in the tefillin and the mezuzah. This Jewish identification must be voiced out loud so that our ears may hear it from our lips. We address it not to G-d but to father Jacob. This, too, is odd. Why don’t we call to father Abraham, the father who taught the idea of G-d as One in the Universe? Or if you imagine Yisrael to mean “our fellow Jews, our fellow Israelites,” why do they need to hear my faith declared? Why do we not pledge to father Isaac? Is it because he produced a child, Esau, who hated Israel just as Ishmael hated him? Rashi says that G-d the One is only truly known to the children of Israel today, but in the future with the presence of the Moshiach all the nations of the world will call on HaShem Echad. In the Torah, G-d says to heed the Shema (Deut. 6:3), not to proclaim it. Why did the catch-all of our identity become that lone statement? We do call to HaShem that we will carry the name into the future. There the particular blends into the universal. The voice of Creation is G-d naming Himself into the first day, where Echad explodes into the Universe.

The need to declare G-d as One mirrors that need we all have to find a oneness within us. To live for G-d in the world means to perceive life subjectively. The Shema tells us to know the world through our inner life, with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our will. And this attunement to unity is what makes a pure individual and what fashions a pure people from each of us individuals. We address this to Israel because we must sense our own belonging, we must find our identity in our roots, in order to access the depths of ourselves.

We are into the book of Vayikra these days. The title of the book is usually translated as “G-d called” to Moses. But it is also korei, G-d reading to Moses. G-d gave his Torah, and there must be an exchange. Each person writes their own Torah to the Almighty.  As G-d calls for the Israelites to come near to Him, we too call for G-d to come near to us. This is the echo of Sinai, the promise of the moment G-d created a new opportunity for connection. We write our name, our Torah, in G-d’s Universe, and G-d reads within each of us what we have done with His name. The word korban, sacrifice, means closeness. Parshat Sav command the kohanim to keep the fires of the mizbeach perpetually lit. There is no physical mizbeach after the temple, so what is that fire today? Might the Shema itself be the fire that we kindle?

The real work of this Purim holiday is to erase the Haman that is within ourselves. Haman’s obsessions are recorded in the Bible for a reason. He was placed in our history because there is a taint of Haman within us. As we must clean out the chametz before Pesach, so we must prior to Purim wash ourselves clean of Haman’s effect upon us. Our duty is to not let him decompose us from within. The purpose of life is to maintain a pristine interior no matter our exterior experience. Many are tempted to seek out the Haman in other Jews, and to that each of us says: “Please don’t take my job away from me. You cannot clean Haman’s stain from my soul. Only I can do that for myself.” The Shema Yisrael is the broom of our holy cleansing. From our incipience as Israel alone in the desert, to our magnificence today as worldwide citizens, and on to our mysterious eternal future, this nation was asked by G-d to be spiritual bearers of G-d’s Name forward. Amen.


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