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Jewish Joy

Parshat Zachor (Deuteronomy 25:17-19 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

Finding the joy in practicing Judaism.

This week, Mayanot focuses on the holiday of Purim.

Purim is the last of the Jewish holy days to enter the Jewish calendar. To understand what this specific holy day has to offer, we must understand something about the nature of the Jewish holy days in general. Purim is a rabbinnic holy day. Let us begin by looking at the Torah-mandated holy days before we consider the rabbinnic ones.

The Torah describes two sets of holy days:

  1. The three festivals -- Passover, Shavuot, and Succot (which were times of pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the Temple era).
  2. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, (occasions for reconciliation, repentance and forgiveness.)

The Torah was written for all times and all ages and we have to assume that all the holy days it prescribes are there to help us maintain a healthy relationship between God and Israel.

A closer look at these holy days leads to the discovery that the three festivals are all related to the food cycle. Passover, in the spring, falls at the time of the earliest annual harvest, the barley crop. The omer sacrifice brought on the second day of Passover permits the consumption of the new harvest. Shavuot coincides with the wheat harvest, the source of the annual supply of the main staple of the human diet. Two loaves of bread are sacrificed on the Altar to mark the occasion. Succot marks the end of the summer when the produce, which has been left in the fields to dry in the summer heat, is finally gathered into the granaries and storage houses in preparation of winter. We celebrate the occasion with the four species. Man's physical survival depends on the success of these harvests, or to put it another way, on the stability of the tripod that rests on these three festivals, called in Hebrew the three regalim, or the three "legs."

The world of physicality is arranged to correspond with the world of spirituality.

According to Jewish thought, the world of physicality is arranged to correspond with the world of spirituality. The physical world presents us with a window through which we are able to catch a glimpse of spiritual events, which are otherwise invisible to our physical eye.

The fact that the three festivals mark the times of the delivery of the physical inputs on which human survival depends, implies that there are corresponding spiritual inputs at these times which are just as essential for man's spiritual survival.

* * *


If we analyze the implications of this correlation, we see that, on Passover, we celebrate the freedom from bondage to physicality that instills us with the potential for leading a spiritual life. On Shavuot, we celebrate the delivery of the necessary staple for leading a spiritual life, the instructions detailed in the Torah. And on Succot, we celebrate the recognition afforded to us by God for our spiritual achievements. The spiritual festivals are the perfect counterparts of the physical ones.

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur do not have this dual aspect. They are purely spiritual holidays when our relationship with God is mended and restored to its freshness.

Interestingly, the Torah has no holy days through the winter, although the entire potential for physical renewal rests on the rainfall of the winter [at least in Israel where rain falls at no other time of year]. The water supplied by the winter precipitation is the essential fuel that powers all future growth. This teaches us that ordinarily, the input of potential is not worthy of celebration. Only when the potential is actualized and its fruits are finally reaped are we instructed to celebrate. As the winter is a time of preparation only, and provides no harvest that can be reaped, it contains no Torah holidays.

However the rabbis added two holy days to these Torah holidays which both fall in the winter -- Chanukah and Purim. These holidays are not only distinct in being winter holidays. They are special in another way as well. They are also "exile" holy days. Chanukah celebrates the end of the Greek occupation, while Purim was instituted to celebrate the end of the Persian exile and the victory over Haman.

* * *


The Maharal explains that the rabbis added these holy days because we require greater inputs of spiritual power in times of exile in order to maintain our spiritual integrity in the face of the special problems it presents.

The Torah, which was written for all times and ages does not present these holidays, because the necessity of the inputs which they symbolize is related to survival in exile. In such a time, Israel has greater spiritual needs than in normal times.

When Israel is in exile, it experiences a spiritual winter.

When Israel is in exile, it experiences a spiritual winter. Just as all the potential of future growth is powered by the precipitation that falls during the winter, the spiritual winter of exile is meant to power future spiritual growth. The spiritual precipitation of the special inputs during exile will eventually lead to a bountiful spiritual harvest that was not designed into the original creation. Every exile is designed to produce a spiritual profit. For this reason, the arrival of this new spiritual potential is itself worthy of celebration. Hence the rabbinnic holidays of Chanukah and Purim.

Living among the nations forces the Jewish people to confront two distinct threats to their survival, the twin threats of spiritual assimilation and physical annihilation. Chanukah celebrates the delivery of the spiritual input required to overcome the threat of spiritual assimilation, while Purim is dedicated to the celebration of the input required to counteract the problem of physical annihilation.

While it is relatively simple to comprehend how an infusion of spiritual power might stave off the threat of assimilation, the connection between spiritual inputs and physical annihilation is not obvious at first glance. A physical threat must surely be counteracted by physical means. What does spirituality have to do with it?

* * *


The Talmud (Megilah 12a) discusses the spiritual origins of Haman's edict:

The students asked Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: "Why did the Jews of that generation deserve annihilation?" He told them, "What do you think?" They said, "Because they enjoyed partaking in the great party of Achashverosh [an event that took place roughly nine years before Haman issued his edict]." He objected, "In that case, the Jews of Shushan, the capital, [the Jews who attended this party] would deserve such a punishment, but why would all the Jews in the world who did not participate be included in the edict of destruction?" They said, "You're right, so you tell us." He said, "They bowed to the idol of Nebuchadnezzar [an event that took place roughly seventy years earlier]." They objected, "If so why indeed were they not wiped out? Does God show favoritism?" He said, "They didn't mean it in their hearts and only did it out of respect to the king, so the edict against them was also not issued by God with finality and therefore could be revoked."

A bizarre conversation indeed! How could events of seventy years earlier, whose perpetrators were no longer in the world, cause the destruction of people who did not participate in them? What is more, if the Jews only bowed to the idol out of respect for the ruler, why did they deserve annihilation in the first place?

The key to all this, and the beginning of understanding of the spiritual input represented by the Purim story and all that it encapsulates, can be found in the words of Nachmanides(Shabbat 88a).

* * *


Nachmanides begins by examining a Talmud passage stating that the Jews were forced by God to accept the Torah. God suspended Mount Sinai over their heads and told them, "Accept the Torah or this will be your burial place." Thus they had a legitimate reason to back out of their agreement with God on the grounds of coercion. It was only in the days of Achashverosh, in the context of the Haman story, that they willingly surrendered this claim of coercion and fully accepted the Torah with all their hearts. Thus the Purim holiday marks the celebration of the true acceptance of the Torah.

As long as God provides the ideal milieu for Torah observance, the issue of coercion never arises.

Nachmanides has several problems with this passage of Talmud. What is the point of protesting coercion after all has been lost? If the Jews were unwilling participants in the Torah covenant till this point in their history, how could they be punished by God with the preceding exile? If God is satisfied with a coerced agreement why celebrate its willing acceptance as though one were ushering in a brand new era?

Explains Nachmanides: Adhering strictly to the dictates of Torah Judaism in times of exile cannot be compared to Torah observance in times of redemption. As long as God provides the ideal milieu for Torah observance, the issue of coercion never arises. It is always understood and accepted as self evident that the condition for conquering and holding the land of Israel, for playing host to the Divine Presence in the Temple in Jerusalem, for the establishment of the Jewish monarchy, for the maintenance of direct communication with God through prophecy, must be the strictest standard of Torah observance. As long as Judaism works and provides Israel with all the trappings required to lead a successful holy existence no one dreams of protesting coercion.

* * *


The protest of coercion first rears its head in exile. The strict observance of Judaism after the Jewish people are stripped of all the demonstrations of Divine favor seems like a one-sided proposition indeed. We Jews are asked to go to extraordinary lengths in terms of what most people consider adequate to fully discharge religious duty. We must seek to please God through observing all the dictates of His Torah, while God appears only to regard us with positive disfavor. In the exile, not only are we Jews unequal to our host nations, we are positively persecuted.

It is from this background that we have to consider the events related in the Talmudic passage above. Nebuchadnezzar's command to bow to his idol was not directed at Jews specifically. All his subject peoples were expected to demonstrate this sign of respect to their monarch's deity.

It was precisely at this point in their history that the Jews issued their protest of coercion, and even then it was stated mildly. In effect they said to God, "As you have chosen to withdraw your special protection from us, we must learn to live in the world as ordinary people. Our beliefs have not changed one iota. Our commitment to the Torah and its observance is sacrosanct. However, we cannot refuse to bow to Nebuchadnezzar. Our practice of Judaism must conform to the realities of the situation in which we find ourselves, a situation that You have created by sending us into exile. As You have made it clear that you will no longer extend us the embrace of Your special protection, we cannot afford to live under Nebuchadnezzar's rule and disobey his edicts. He will certainly destroy us if we do."

When, nearly seventy years later, Achashverosh threw his grand party and invited the dignitaries of all his subject peoples to attend, although there was much emphasis on the fact that no one was compelled to attend, the Jews once again decided that the prudent course was not to offend him by their conspicuous absence. But Mordechai told them not to attend. Why?

* * *


The occasion for calling the party was to celebrate the fact that the anticipated Jewish redemption, which had been predicted to take place in the seventieth year of their exile never materialized. The captured Temple vessels -- treated with great reverence to this point because of the fear of the arrival of the Jewish Messiah -- were taken out at the party and used in profane ways.

Mordechai argued against the propriety of attending a celebration organized to mark the demise of the Jewish religion. The people decided to attend anyway out of what they protested was merely sensible realism. But then they enjoyed it. What began as a reluctant adaptation to the so-called realities of the exile seventy years earlier, gradually developed into a positive enjoyment of the pagan way of life and its pleasures. So deep was the Jewish desire to fit in by this time, that Jews could actually enjoy their own public humiliation. Making fun of religious Jews was then the politically correct thing to do.

The Jews of Babylon adapted, but, with time, this adaptation began to extract a spiritual price.

We have finally come to the point of understanding what is meant by physical annihilation as opposed to spiritual assimilation. The Jews of Babylon were unshaken in their faith and remained spiritually untainted. They simply adapted realistically to their altered physical circumstances in order to ensure their physical survival. However as time wore on this adaptation began to extract a spiritual price.

While outwardly, the practice of Judaism continued, inwardly the Jews began to look at the world in the same way as the pagans around them. They no longer dreamed of Jerusalem. They aspired to the same trappings of success and enjoyment as the rest of Achashverosh's subjects. Their inner vision of their unique mission in the world was so lost to them that they managed to enjoy the party whose very purpose was the celebration of their demise as a unique spiritual force.

In the end, the threat of Jewish annihilation that arises from the apparently harmless adaptation to reality turns out to be as real as the threat presented by the positive desire to abandon Jewish beliefs in favor of the beliefs of the nations.

God waited seventy years from the time Israel bowed to Nebuchadnezzar's idols before He allowed Haman to issue his edict of destruction. He wanted to demonstrate to the Jewish people that their apparently realistic and reasonable adaptation to their changed circumstances was really much more than that. He wanted them to realize that they were lying to themselves. The true source of their desire to adapt was a deep longing to be just like everyone else.

* * *


There is much more to Judaism than the outer trappings of observance. Observance is the body of Judaism, but its soul requires the Jews to place their relationship with God at the very center of life. The observance of the commandments is only meaningful when it is the outer manifestation of this inner reality. One cannot be truly Jewish without dreaming of the Temple and of Jerusalem. Jews who manage to find a good life in the absence of this dream are on their way to annihilation as a distinct people no matter what their level of observance may be.

There is a famous saying in Yiddish, S'is shver zu zein a Yid! "It's hard to be a Jew." Israel has lost far many more Jews through its history to this statement than to the persuasive power of foreign ideologies.

The spiritual input of the Purim holiday is provided to counter this tendency. In essence, it comes to counter the protest of coercion. We see the Torah as coercion as long as we feel that strict observance is impractical and burdensome in the context of the realities within which we are forced to live. But Jews in exile must be able to find joy in the practice of Judaism to be able to maintain their commitment to Judaism as the focus of their existence. They must still feel that despite all the hardships of exile, their commitment to the Torah is the force that gives them life.

When they were faced with Haman's edict, the Jewish people found the strength to reach deep into their collective soul. Israel realized that the physical annihilation which threatened them was an indication of the spiritual level to which they had sunk. They were threatened with outward physical annihilation only because they were close to dying as a people spiritually on the inside. They reexamined their attitude to their own commitment to Judaism, located the protest of coercion in their collective Jewish soul, and gave it up for good. As a result, the physical edict was rescinded and the Jews were blessed with "light, happiness, joy and honor."

The joy that comes from Torah observance under seemingly unfavorable circumstances is the spiritual input that God offers on Purim. May we all merit receiving a powerful dose of it.

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