IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: There has been no HITZEI YEHONATAN, either on the blog or sent out to readers, for the past three weeks due to serious computer problems, which forced me to reconstruct my mailing list by hand. We hope to resume soon with our teachings for Beshalah, Yitro and Mishpatim-and so on thereafter. Meanwhile, tachings from previous years may be found in the archives below: for Bo-Mishpatim in February 2006; for Tetzaveh-Vayikra, inclduing Purim, in March 2006. Terumah is divided between those two months.
The Merry Month of Adar
“When Adar enters, joy increases.” The month of Adar is best known for the festival of Purim, which falls in mid-month. A day of total celebration, even hilarity—but not really a festival day in the formal sense; as the old Yiddish saying has it, “cholera is not an illness, and Purim is not a Yom Tov.” It is utterly lacking in the halakhic aspects of the Torah- prescribed festivals such as Rosh Hashanah or Pesah: no restrictions on labor, no Hallel, no Musaf… It is the quintessential weekday; a secular celebration or, as the Hasidic books constantly reiterate, a celebration of the Divine within the secular.
A well-known aggadah (Shabbat 88a) states that, at Sinai, God “held the mountain over them like a barrel,” telling the Israelites that if they didn’t accept the Torah, “here shall be your burial place.” Not much of a choice! Torah imposed by compulsion. Today some people would no doubt call it a form of spiritual rape. A heteronomous ethics based, not on free choice or the training of the inner moral conscience, but of an external law, with which all-too-fallible man must conform. As we have noted many times over the years—it is this concept more than anything else that rankles with many contemporary Jews. (Albeit now we are in post-modernity—but isn’t the “post-modern” consciousness, the new quest for “spirituality,” if anything more individualistic, more antithetical to such thinking, than the “modern”?)
Our aggadah goes on to say that, “later, they again accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus”—this time voluntarily. Purim is thus the festival when we say, as it were, “It is good to be a Jew!” Carrying this idea one step further, a central motif in Hasidic homiletics sees Adar generally as a time of accepting Torah, and of doing teshuvah, “out of love.” Adar is thus as a kind of counterpoint to Elul: the latter being a time devoted to repentance based on fear—fear of punishment, of the verdict of the Divine judge and, on a more sublime level, feelings of awe and being overwhelmed by the terrifying, uncanny, “Wholly Other” nature of the Divine. But there is another side to Adar, that also relates to love. The bulk of Torah readings for this month focus upon the construction of the sanctuary. From the opening words of Parshat Terumah, with which the month usually opens, the Torah takes an abrupt turn. From the very beginning of Bereshit through Mishpatim, with the exception of two or three odd chapters of civil legislation in the latter, the Torah is one long narrative. It tells the story of real human beings—from the origins or prehistory of mankind, through the family saga of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the twelve brothers, down to the drama of the clan-become-nation, enslaved, freed, and brought through the desert to Sinai—throughout, a story with protagonists, action, and numerous conversations between man and God. Suddenly, we read chapter after chapter detailing the construction of a building set aside for religious worship, for a “dwelling place” for the Divine. We occupy ourselves with precious metals, rich fabrics, complex craftsmanship, elaborate priestly raiment. From a God in shirtsleeves, so to speak, we turn to a God of pomp and ceremony, clothed in crimson and purple robes.
And yet, in a strange way, is not this also an expression of love? Was not Bezalel’s task a labor of love? If God, after all, is transcendent, as He whom “no man can see and live” (Exod 33:20: a phrase from one of this month’s parshiyot!), whom Isaiah saw “seated on a high and lofty throne, and the hems of his robes filled the Temple”—If He is all that, then it makes sense that He can only be approached through the solemn ritual of “the silent sanctuary,” in Knohl’s apt phrase; through elaborate, carefully choreographed service. But that ritual itself (at least at its best) is meant to serve as an instrument for the burning passion of love, for “the fire that always burns on the altar.”
But an interesting thought: in the middle of all this solemnity, this rather “Yekkishe,” disciplined piety and religious action, there is an irruption of chaos. In the midst of the account of the stately, solemn process of constructing the sanctuary, we read Ki Tisa, the sin of the Golden Calf. Perhaps—and this is no more than a tentative, rather wild thought—this story may be read as a kind of protest against the making of the Tabernacle. After all, the making of the Tabernacle represents the channeling of what had hitherto been free and loose and spontaneous and even ecstatic—“They beheld God, and they ate and drank” (Exod 24:11)—into pomp and circumstance and formal structuring. In this reading, the making of the Calf is a kind of anarchistic, bohemian rebellion against hierarchical formalism—a la Kotzk, Buber, or the ‘60s hippies. If this is so, then in the famous debate between Rashi and Ramban as to whether or not there is a necessary chronological sequence to what we are told by the Torah (yesh mukdam ume’uhar ba-Torah / ein mukdam ume’uhar ba-Torah), there is a profound logic to the placing of the making of the Calf narrative smack in the middle between Terumah-Tetzaveh, the instruction for making the Tabernacle, and Vayakhel-Pekudei, its execution.
But then Adar has a second irruption of chaos—Purim itself. Purim is the Festival of Chaos par excellence within the orderly, disciplined rhythm of Jewish life. Certainly, the manner of its celebration is chaotic: drinking to excess, wearing disguises, symbolically casting off one’s social identity and role, saying “Purim Torah,” in which we mock all that which is taken with such deadly seriousness all year long.
But there is something chaotic about Purim on a deeper level. It is a day when we let into the liturgy the sense of chaos, of chance, of the random, or seemingly random, way things happen in history. The story, considered in secular terms, outside of the sacred aura of the synagogue, is scandalous: a nice Jewish girl essentially prostitutes herself to gain entry to and influence with a stupid but powerful monarch who has a known track record for liking wine, women and partying; she uses her feminine charms to cajole, seduce, persuade him to act on behalf of her people. The contrast between the “real life,” the world of realpolitik, and the symbolic, ceremonial sphere, is blatant. Purim is the time when we celebrate God’s presence in the mundane—not through overt miracles, but in all the sordid reality of the mundane.
As for Purim as joy, as love, as laughter: Consider the overt meaning of Purim: together with the end of Scripture, the end of prophecy, the end of overt miracles, it is also the beginning of anti-Semitism. And, unlike the imperialistic conquerors like Nebuchadnezzar or the local kings who made trouble during the days of the judges and the kings, who attacked Israel for practical gain, Haman was a Jew-hater, plain and simple. “There is a certain nation whose laws and ways are different from every other people.”
There is something chaotic about Anti-Semitism itself. All the theories of sociological, historical causality seem to fall short in attempting to explain it—or they offer too many different and contradictory theories, which amounts to the same thing. “The Jews are communists, the Jews are capitalists; the Jews are rootless cosmopolitans, the Jews are clannish and provincial; the Jews assimilate and have no pride in their own culture, the Jews refuse to assimilate, but dress funny, talk funny, eat funny, and insist on observing all these peculiar rituals; the Jews are atheists, the Jews are religious fanatics; the Jews killed Christ, the Jews invented Christianity; the Jews are hyper-sexual studs who go around seducing Christian girls, the Jews are prigs who teach a stern, forbidding morality filled with ‘don’t’s ….” And so on and so forth. And we Jews, for our part, too often say: if we were only nicer, if we would only do the right thing by them, if we would only end racism, sexism, globalism, if we would only stop the poverty and ignorance of the Arab world—then they will stop preaching hate and violence, and the world will be filled with human kindness, brotherhood and love. But is it so? My erstwhile friends from the aging New Left are still trying to understand Islamic radicalism in Neo-Marxist terms, talking about backwardness, economic exploitation, Fanonian ressentiment, etc.—but it’s all somehow too facile and simplistic, denying the power of religion and identity as forces in the world. No, we live in an age of folly, and the planet earth seems one giant ship of fools. Oy, do we need a Purimdik yeshu’ah.
To return to the upbeat message of Adar as a month of “teshuvah out of love”: it may sound simpler and more positive than teshuvah out of fear—but is it really so? Serving God out of fear requires external conformity, watching one’s actions, but it has the advantage that one remains free inside, so to speak, to feel whatever one feels. “Think what you wish, but do as you are told.” But service out of love is something quite different; it demands one’s “kishkes,” one’s innermost self. A person has to really love God (whatever that means, deep down), long for Him, be prepared to “do the truth because it is the truth,” as Rambam puts it, without expectation of reward—consistently, day in and day out, when life is in the pits, as an individual and as part of a collectivity, even when history itself seems hopeless.
Adar is about the tension between these two moments: of orderly, fixed service of God through the mitzvot—in our case, the pattern of prayer and Torah that somehow replace the service of the priest in the Temple; and the spontaneous outpouring of joy and love within the chaotic, crazy world of seemingly chance and wild events. Two short ideas to conclude: our friend Elana Friedman pointed out that the Hebrew letter that exemplifies the month of Adar is kof, which can stand for either Kodesh—holy, or Kof—monkey. On Purim, when we let go of the tight control we ordinarily impose on ourselves, and the spirits flow generously, that which emerges can either be the inner holiness of the soul, the spark of the Divine within us—or a monkey. Secondly: the Zodaic sign for Adar is Pisces—fish. Why fish? In many places, the Bible divides God’s Creation into three realms: the heavens, the earth, and “the seas and all that is therein.” Pisces is almost the only month whose symbol belongs to the watery depths. The world beneath the surface of the water, in the depths of the seas, is almost as mysterious and unknown to us as the distant stars. Perhaps these denizens of the deep represent the unknown, the unseen, concealed element in life—like the unconscious self that comes to the surface when we drink too much—as on Purim.
We shall have more to say on Purim consciousness, viz. the unity and rulership of God, a bit later.