Friday, March 10, 2006

DVAR TORAH: Tetzaveh/Shabbat Zachor 3 of 5!

This is the third in a series of 5 (actually 3) Divrei Torah I have given in the past for Parashat Tetzaveh AND/OR Shabbat Zachor. This particular Dvar Torah is from the final printing of the Spring Edition of the Kol Columbia (Hillel newsletter) Look at this side-to-side (open a new wind0w) with my original version to compare the changes they made to the crazy ravings I make.


Purim, the College Student’s Holiday

A Dvar Torah by Matt Rutta, KOACH Co-Chair

Ah Purim, what an ideal holiday for a college student! Huzzah! You are almost required to act like a fool to the point of misbehaving during religious services; get completely ferschnickered, even to the point of not being able to tell the difference between the arch-villain and the hero of the Purim story. In the past I have described this holiday as “Simchat Torah without the restrictions.” Travel doesn’t have to be by foot, spending money doesn’t have to be curtailed, and music doesn’t have to be a cappella. Hooray!

But what is Purim? To paraphrase Borat Sagdiyev, one of Ali G’s popular characters, Haman wanted to “throw the Jew down the well so his country could be free” and yet we “grabbed the evil Persian vizier by his horns, then we have a big party.” Adar is the one time of year where we are not only permitted, but are expected to make complete fools of ourselves. Taanit 29a of the Talmud Bavli, or Babylonian Talmud, states: “Mishenichnas Adar Marbin Besimcha,” “whosoever welcomes the month of Adar increases in joy.” There is a generally accepted relaxing or uprooting of certain negative biblical mitzvot, or commandments, such as those imposed on cross-dressing (Dvarim 22:5 as lifted by Joseph Caro in the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 696:8). This is as radical as the lifting of the prohibition on gambling granted on Chanukah! Indeed, we are seemingly obligated to get utterly smashed on Purim.

I would never call Judaism a “dry” religion. That would be wholly untrue; we drink wine at most religious occasions and usually move along to consuming hard alcohol. However, we are always reminded to drink in moderation. In the Torah, wine is Noah’s downfall, and the Talmud is rife with warnings against drunkenness.

Conversely, wine on Purim is different. There is no formulaic Kiddush over wine mandated for the holiday, and yet we are commanded to drink, and drink a lot! Megilah 7b, in a sugya, or unit, which I am sure many of you are at least semi-familiar with even if you have never studied Talmud, quotes Rava, a fourth-century scholar, who says, “One is obligated to sweeten himself on Purim until he cannot differentiate between ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordechai.’” Rashi, an 11th century French Torah and Talmud scholar, confirms that “to sweeten oneself” means “to get shikkered with wine” and Rambam, a 12th century Spanish scholar, codifies this into law.

However, the Talmud challenges Rava’s statement; leaving Rava’s position unchecked is akin to leaving an alcoholic alone before an open bar. Following Rava’s declaration, the Talmud recounts an intriguing legend. In this story, Rabbah invites Rabbi Zeira to a Purim Seudah, or festive meal, during which both get beyond drunk and Rabbah literally slaughters (the Aramaic used is shachtei, which is the same word used for ritual slaughter of cattle) his colleague. The next day, a distraught Rabbah realizes what he has done and prays for God to bring Rabbi Zeira back to life. A miracle occurs and Rabbi Zeira is resuscitated. The next year, Rabbah again invites Rabbi Zeira to his Purim Seudah, but a wary Rabbi Zeira refuses, not wanting a repeat of the previous year’s events with no guarantee of a second miracle of resurrection.

But doesn’t this contradict that which was just stated in terms of the permissibility to drink beyond the basic recognition of good and evil? Really, this story comes to clarify the extent of excessive drinking on Purim. The point of this Talmudic account seems to be to have fun but use discretion, stay away from butcher knives and chainsaws, and have a designated underclassperson who is underage and therefore will not drink to care for you in your excessive inebriation and to wake you up for the morning Megillah reading our at least for Kabbalat Shabbat.

Enjoy the concerts, the Purim shpiels, and the Megillah readings. Boo Mordechai and Yay Haman… strike that, reverse it! Purim is indubitably a great minor festival, a spiritual victory over physical threat, where we let spirits (wine and the like) be victorious over our physical minds and bodies.

In the Messianic Age, all of the festivals, the High Holidays, and even Chanukah will revert to their Temple-centric celebrations, but Purim, the one holiday whose main text, the Megillah, does not even contain the Name of God, will still be celebrated with the same four mitzvot as it has since Mordechai and Esther wrote the scroll two and a half millennia ago: reading the Megillah, having a feast, giving gifts to the poor, and sending mishloach manot, gifts of food, to your friends. And of course, lots of ever-flowing alcohol. To quote a great chacham and gadol, a wise and great person of our generation, Rabbeinu Homer ben Avraham, the Springfielder Rav, who toasts, “to alcohol, the cause of—and solution to—all of life’s problems!” A freilichin Purim and Dodgers in ‘05! L’chayim!

1 comment:

Fern Sidman said...

Two points in Megilat Esther are not clear. Firstly, what brought on the decree to destroy all the Jews, and secondly, what suddenly happened that caused the decree to be canceled? To understand this, we will look at the story of Purim.

Like a bolt of lightning, the decree "to destroy to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day" fell upon Persian Jewry. The reaction of the Jews to this edict was quite puzzling. The Megilah says that the "City of Shushan was in consternation". Consternation? Certainly, a more normal reaction would be to shout or cry. But "consternation"?

But if we take a glimpse at the of situation Persian Jewry at the time, we would see that consternation is the reaction we might expect after all. For it never entered their minds that such a thing could ever happen. They were the biggest patriots! They were the most loyal to Achasverosh! That is why when Achashverosh (nine months earlier) sent out invitations for the 180-day feast, the Jews were the first ones to confirm their attendance. All this despite the protests from the "extremists" such as Mordechai, who warned against their participation in such a feast, since it's intention was to make the Jews assimilate. But the Jews wanted to prove that they are not different than the rest. Thus the reaction of consternation upon hearing the shocking decree.

But then the Megilah continues: "And Mordechai knew all that was done..." He had no illusions, and understood fully what caused the decree. He knew that the assimilation - precisely what the Jew thought would ease anti-Semitic tensions, was the very cause of the decree! For the rule was learned since our days in Egypt: Whenever the Jew tries to water down his Judaism and be accepted by the gentile, the latent hatred (which is always there) of the gentile towards the Jew outwardly manifests itself.

If so, why was the decree annulled? Because immediately upon receiving word of the decree, Mordechai, as we mentioned, knew the reason for it, and did not give up. He also did not go on a boot-licking campaign to plead the case of the Jews to the king or his cabinet, despite the fact that he was no stranger to the palace and had connections there. What he did was to undergo a last-ditch effort to awaken the Jews to understand the real cause of the problem - that precisely their effort to shed their uniqueness as Jews and to blur over their Jewish identity and be like goyim is what brings upon them bad times.

Indeed, it is not easy to convey such a message to a Jew, when he is so caught up in having the goy love him. Because such a message seems to contradict all logic. But in Shushan, a great miracle occurred, and it is the real hidden miracle of Purim - the Jews did "Tsheuva"! And not just "Tsh'uva" of talking without backing it up, but rather one of deeds. Instead of continuing to grovel to the Persians and bring down barriers as most Jews naturally react, they made themselves subservient to the truth of Mordechai only, admitting to their original mistake of participating in the forbidden banquet. This was the significance of the mass fast which was declared. It signified a genuine "Tsheuva" to G-d.

By the way, now we can see why the Name of G-d does not appear in Megilat Esther, despite the fact that the theme of the story is "Tsh'uva to G-d". It is to tell us that when there is distress, one should not just rely on G-d to solve our problems in some miraculous fashion. Rather, we must prove by our actions that we understand the reason for the distress, and then do the right thing, even if it appears to be "illogical".

This should give us encouragement for today. For the problem of today is the same: Our need to copy the gentiles, to blur over our uniqueness as a people, and our absolute dependency on the world. At times it seems there is no hope. Can our people ever understand that America won't save us? And behold, we have a precedent in our history where from great distress, the Jewish People were able to wake up and to cling to the truth of Hashem. May we see the same awesome "Naha-Fochu" (a turning of the tables) quickly.