Purim: Knowing Tomorrow
Parshat Zachor (Deuteronomy 25:17-19 )
At the foot of Mount Sinai – the very same spot where the most awesome events had unfolded a mere forty days earlier – the people were anxious. Moshe, their leader, had not come down, and fear for his survival spread throughout the camp.
What happens next seems inconceivable on so many levels: How could a nation that had witnessed the miraculous plagues in Egypt and the splitting of the sea, a nation whose daily sustenance, the manna, descended for them each morning from heaven, a nation that had seen the heavens open up, a nation that had witnessed God with their own senses– nonetheless question and defy God?
The people saw that Moshe was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aharon and said to him, 'Make for us a god to lead us, for Moshe, the man who brought us out of Egypt – we do not know what happened to him. (Shmot 32:1)
This verse is comprised of two distinct elements, two hints that may provide us with insights into this terrible sin. Moshe’s disappearance is clearly the trigger for this rapid devolution, but the words with which the people express themselves are very specific: In what appears to be a strange cause-and affect strategy on their part, they turn to Aharon and ask him to “make a god” because they “do not know” what happened to Moshe. Of these two elements, the solution they suggest for their predicament, the making of a god, is surely more disturbing, because it is a direct violation of the second commandment they had recently received. However, there is a common thread between these two elements that harks back to a time and place much earlier than Sinai. Both of these elements – the question of knowledge about Moshe’s fate, and the desire to make a god to solve the problem, were, in fact, elements of the very first sin at the dawn of history:
God knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like god, knowing good and evil.' (Bereishit 3:5)
From time immemorial, mankind has suffered from delusions of grandeur, and has been unable or unwilling to accept the vast chasm that separates man and God. The very first verses of the Torah sketch the outlines of human intellectual hubris: Mankind has always assumed that all types of knowledge are accessible, that we have the inalienable right to know and understand everything, without exception. This attitude is just as obvious in the Garden of Eden as it is at the foot of Mount Sinai.
And so, as Aharon faces this new-fangled expression of an age-old spiritual malady, his first line of defense is a delaying tactic. He instructs the dissolute mob to bring the jewelry belonging to their spouses and children. One can only assume that this very specific task, and not a more general order to bring gold and whatever precious metals they had at hand, was devised in the hope that the wives and children would form the first line of defense; if not for religious reasons, then at least out of far more pragmatic concern for their valuables, they might dissuade the mob. The text gives no clear indication whether the wives acquiesced1 or if, along with the other outrages committed that day, theft of personal property was an additional charge on the rap sheet.
Aharon sees how the golden calf is formed and he declares that a holiday for God will be observed on the following day. A very careful reading of Aharon’s response indicates that it is far more complex than we might have assumed. First, Aharon declares the holiday in the name of the Eternal God, making pointed and specific use of the ineffable name that describes God as transcendent and unknowable. We can only assume that Aharon’s intention was to point out the absurdity of worshipping the newly-forged golden calf. The second element of Aharon’s response is, once again, a stalling tactic – pushing off the celebration for the following day, in order to cool down their hotheaded, visceral enthusiasm and allow clearer thinking to prevail.
This stalling tactic had been used not long before, when the tribe of Amalek descended upon them in a murderous campaign against God and His people. Moshe appointed Yehoshua to fight Amalek, but, oddly enough, instructed him to respond to the Amalekite assault only on the following day.2 Quite purposefully, the element of delayed gratification was used as a weapon against Amalek, the descendants of Esav. Like their forefather, their hallmark was immediate gratification. Esav lived in the here-and-now, and bartered the future for a bowl of beans, scorning a birthright that included hundreds of years of slavery in return for the rights to the Land of Israel. Similarly, Amalek pounced upon the descendants of Yaakov as they were poised to enter the Land of Israel, after having paid their dues in Egypt – but they were unable to vanquish a nation of emancipated slaves who were willing to take the long road. Moshe’s instructions to Yehoshua taught us that the way to combat Esav’s immediate-gratification mentality is to focus on the future, to place our faith in the Eternal God.
Now, Aharaon uses the same strategy against the murderous,3 idolatrous mob – the only difference being that this time, the mob is his own people – our people. We had become like Amalek, seeking immediate answers and solutions, and we received the same treatment.
The same is true of the events of Purim, generations after the golden calf debacle: Haman, a descendant of Amalek, nearly succeeded in destroying the Jewish People in order to fulfill his insatiable desire for immediate gratification. The Jews had become vulnerable precisely because they had adopted the Amalekite mindset, becoming willing participants in the hedonistic and idolatrous lifestyle of Shushan. Queen Esther understood that the remedy for our spiritual vulnerability hinged upon our ability to battle Esav and Amalek through our faith in the Eternal, in the spiritual life that goes beyond the here-and-now orientation of our enemies. She insured that the battle against Esav-Amalek-Haman would take place not only on the day Haman had decreed for the battle, but on the following day as well.
We celebrate this victory Ad D’lo Yada – until we understand that we cannot know everything. There are things that remain beyond the grasp of human intellect; these are the things that give rise to our faith in Netzach Yisrael, the Eternal God of Israel.
For a more in depth analysis on Purim and Parashat KiTisa see:
1. “All the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aharon.” (Shmot 32:3)
2. We usually understand that the war began immediately, although Moshe, Aharon and Hur did not respond in prayer until the next day. However, rabbinic sources teach that this verse is among those that remain, “unresolved” as to whether the word “tomorrow” is part of the orders to Yehoshua (“Go fight Amalek tomorrow”) or part of the narrative regarding Moshe, Hur and Aharon. See Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishmael, Amalek, section 1.
3. Tradition records that the mob murdered Hur when he attempted to stop them. See Rashi, Shmot 32:5.