parshat zachor – purim
You think that Purim is about a mad cap plot to get the Jews? Think again. It’s actually, by my count, the third holiday we have dedicated to the giving of the Torah.
No… I’m not making this up. You see… according to the Talmud, the original acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, was under duress and therefore non-binding or at least subject to review:
And they stood under the mount (Exodus 19:17)
R. Abdimi b. Hama b. Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them, ‘If ye accept the Torah, ’tis well; if not, there shall be your burial.’ R. Aha b. Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah.
Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written, [the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.]
[Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Shabbath 88a]
Another holiday to celebrate the giving of the torah.. you squirm? First there is Shavuot – Originally an agricultural celebration of the the first fruits …. Co-opted by tradition (not biblical) and transformed into a commemoration of matan torah – the giving of the torah. Then there is Simchat Torah… again a pre-existing agricultural harvest festival (think: Thanksgiving) morphed again by post biblical tradition into a celebration of the Torah and the annual public reading cycle. And now… there’s Purim which was a pre-existing end-of-winter day of revelry (think: St. Patrick’s and Mardi Gras) made by the rabbis into a celebration of the final acceptance of the Torah…
Ignoring the more basic question of why the Torah itself did not specifically mandate a holiday to celebrate its revelation…. I can understand how Shavuot and Simchat Torah could be linked to the receiving the Torah. The Jews of the Exodus had paid their dues and were entitled, like a farmer to celebrate the fruits of their labor… in this case by receiving the Torah. In the Exodus the Jewish People collectively experienced the necessary purification.. out of the furnace of slavery. But what is it about Purim, an end-of-winter Feast of Fools, that provides the rabbis with a link to the revelation at Sinai?
Well I suppose that all three holidays have as their raison d’etre’ … pure JOY (Simcha). Two harvest festivals and one survival narrative (Purim). and after all, isn’t that a nice message?
When we experience the pure, unadulterated joy of survival such as only a farmer … totally dependent on the whims of nature and the survivor of a near massacre can experience.. only then can we understand the joy of receiving the Torah.
Kudos to the Rabbis! Just as the joy of survival is accessible to everyone so too is the joy of receiving the Torah! You don’t have to be a Torah scholar to celebrate the fruits of your labor or the sheer exhilaration of surviving a catastrophe nor must you be a scholar to celebrate the giving of the Torah. Nice…..
Wow! The whole Purim experience has been transformed. …. Simchat Torah is proceeded by a period of repentance starting with Rosh HaShannah and culminating with a day of repentance (Hoshannah Rabbah) and Shavuot is preceded with seven weeks of repentance (Sefirat haOmer)… But it is only Purim that is preceded by a fast day (fast of Esther) in remembrance of a three day period of sanctification requested by Esther and identical to that commanded before the giving of the Torah:
And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Go unto the people, and sanctify them to-day and to-morrow, and let them wash their garments, and be ready against the third day; for the third day the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai. (Exodus 19: 12)
‘Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.’ (Megilat Esther 4:16)
In Synagogue on Shavuot we read relevant portions of the Torah and on Simchat Torah we finish and begin the Five Books of Moses, once in the evening and again the following morning….but on Purim we read an entire scroll … with narrative and plot from beginning to end. …
IF Purim is the ultimate revelation holiday.. THEN what you will experience during the reading of the Megilah this Purim will be transformed. .. Think of the audience participation… the shouting, cheering and booing as a variation on the custom to solemnly stand as the Ten Commandments are read. Needless to say, that standing next to a cross-dressing Jew whose had a few too many drinks, while listening to the revelation of the law gives the www.sawyouatsinai.com dating site new meaning!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We still haven’t cracked open this Hamantash. If the Simcha of survival is the criterion for declaring a giving the Torah holiday… then every Jewish holiday should be a Matan Torah celebration. After all “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat” describes pretty much every Jewish Holiday…. right?
The truth is, there’s something special about the Esther Megillah. The scroll that we read on the evening and morning of Purim is actually the last book of the Torah. Purim is The Simchat Torah… not just the Five Books of Moses.. but of the whole shebang!
What makes this celebration of the last book of the Tanakh even more impressive is that the Book of Esther was a little controversial. It does not contain God’s name, was not written in or mention, the Promised Land of Israel and includes highly unorthodox behavior including Esther’s marriage to a non-Jew, probable ingestion of non-kosher food (Megilah 13a) and no reference to any Jewish practices or the Temple. (see A Jewish Reading of Esther, Edward L. Greenstein, pp 231 – 233 in Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel ed Jacob Neusner Wipf and Stock publishers 1987).
It’s inclusion is the Canon (Torah, Prophets and Writings – Tanakh) was debated. Reb Judah said in the name of Samuel “The scroll of Esther does not defile the hands (unlike a Sefer Torah) and as such was not divinely inspired [Megilah 7a). “All of the Hebrew scripture is represented at Qumron (Dead Sea Scrolls) except for the Scroll of Esther [and] it is possible that the sectarians did not observe the Purim festival and rejected the book which enjoins its observance. (see pp 106-107, 113 – 114 and note 301, The Canonization of the Hebrew Scripture by Sid Z. Leiman, Archon Books, 1976)
The winning Talmudic argument for including the Scroll of Esther is actually the clue which explains why Esther is so important, why we celebrate Purim and why with the Megilla, we finally have a Torah. The Rabbis ultimately understood that with Esther we finish what we began in Genesis and why Purim is The Matan Torah holiday.
What is the source in Torah for Esther? “ve-Anochi haster aster panai ba-yom ha-hu” [I will surely hide my face from you on that day. (Deuteronomy 31:18 cited in Talmud Hullin 139b).
In a brilliant essay, Richard Elliot Friedman identifies four “unifying components of plot which provide the commonality necessary among the texts (of the Tanakh) to enable them to join in meaningful continuity.” These are: monotheism, nationalism, the historical sense and covenant. Friedman continues: “Still, all of these factors together… would not have produced a continuous literary work…. What was still needed was to make the collection into a continuous story – in literary terms, a plot. The record of the relations between Yahweh and the human community provided the plot. Specifically, the major unifying component of the biblical plot is the phenomenon of the continually diminishing apparent presence of Yahweh among humans from the beginning of the book to the end, the phenomenon of Deus absconditus or, in the book’s own terms, Yahweh hammastir panav…”. Over a number of pages, Friedman shows how there is a clear transition, from Eden, when God takes care of everything through Noah, where Noah must build his own ark and to Jacob where Jacob must steal his own birthright. “Something is happening. For whatever reason, Yahweh is transferring (relinquishing?) ever more control of the course of human affairs to members of the human community.” “In Moses’ own time, ..the people’s experience of the divine is mediated through Moses, or “masked” through the Kabod and the anan, or channeled through a series of layers…. Finally, Yahweh’s last words to Moses before summoning him to Abarim, he says, “I shall hide my face from them..” “After Moses, prophets are to experience only dreams and visions….” The last major public miracle… is that of Elijah at Carmel (Kings 1:19). … In a fascinating juxtaposition.. is followed by the portrayal of Elijah at Horeb. Again we see a lone prophet on Horeb/Sinai, but Elijah’s experience there is a reversal of Moses. In the place of the supreme theophany come three phenomena… (earthquake, wind, and fire), each followed by the specific qualification “Yahweh was not in (it),”.. With the destruction of the Temple at the conclusion of the Book of Kings, the last channel is removed. The prediction that Yahweh’s face will be hidden is fulfilled… Yahweh plays no apparent role whatever in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and he is not mentioned in Esther. The narrative from Genesis to Esther has come full cycle from a stage on which God is alone to one on which humans are on their own. Through no longer in control of miraculous powers, humans have arrived at complete responsibility for their fortunes.”
“One can derive a range of interpretations from this total book (Tanakh) perspective. Consider the case of Esther,…. Seen in the light of diminishing apparent presence of Yahweh through the course of biblical narrative, through it is an appropriate and striking concluding book for the narrative, portraying the people of Israel in a hostile world in which one can no longer count on miraculous divine intervention for rescue. Seen in the light of the increasing responsibility ascribed to humans through the course of the narrative, Esther is no less interesting,… Woman, Eve, has been blamed for millennia for entering upon the course of action that brought humans out of their initial state of harmonious relations with Yahweh (Genesis 3). It seems only fair, ironic, and appropriate that the narrative concludes with a story in which humans, now in a world, in which the presence of god is hidden, turn to a woman as their chief hope of rescue. One may interpret the Eve-to-Esther connection differently, but one can hardly ignore it. Each of the Bible’s bookends has a woman’s face carved on it.” (see The Hiding of the Face: An essay on the literary unity of Biblical Narrative, by Richard Elliot Friedman in Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel ed Jacob Neusner Wipf and Stock publishers 1987).
How appropriate in a week where we saw a devastating earthquake in Japan and a horrific and savage slaughter of a Jewish family (infant to adult) in Itamar, we are asked to accept and celebrate the Torah in its entirety.
On Purim we are asked to remember like Elijah, that God is no longer in an earthquake. With the Torah complete, it is now entirely our human responsibility to prepare for acts of nature as best we can and to help the survivors mourn and rebuild.
And on Purim… when it comes to the savagery of our fellow man.. here too, we must remember that the Torah is complete…. We live in a time where not only is God no longer present, but also in a time where tribalism, racism, fanaticism, blood feuds and Promised lands must disappear. Yes, we have to remember the evil done, but we are no longer commanded to hunt down and expose Amalekites. Amalek is no more. We are rather commanded to remember what Amalek did.. so that it can be a lesson to us and our neighbors. The lesson of Zachor is that tribalism, racism, fanaticism, blood feuds and Promised lands only lead to the type of genocide proposed by Haman.
The lesson of reading the Megillah, with a blessing, evening and morning of Purim is to finalize what began at Sinai. On Purim we accept the completion of the Torah and our responsibilities as humans. We masquerade to remember, that at this giving of the Torah, we do not see or hear God, He is hidden from us and maybe we from Him. We exchange food with each other in the way that two humans touch. Whether lovers, neighbors or strangers, that touch, hug or box of welcome-brownies shows that we are not alone. We experience real Simcha knowing that we as a people and as individuals have survived against all odds. And…. We celebrate women.. who may get us into trouble.. but more often… like Esther… save us.
And most important to me… we drink and are frivolous not because we are superficial or escapist but rather precisely because we recognize our situation. “real celebration, rather than a retreat from the reality of injustice and evil, occurs most authentically where these negative realities are recognized and tackled, not where they are avoided (Harvey Cox, Feast of Fools p 25).
So this Purim, more than ever, let’s strap on a mask, share some food and take a stiff drink… the Torah has been completed, God is completely hidden and now it’s our turn – Ve-Nahafochu …
haRav Moshe Wolfson, circa 1970’s – Purim Seudah