Thursday, March 12, 2009
Ad D'lo Yada
"Chayav inish l'besume ad d'lo yada" ("A person is required to drink until they cannot differentiate"). This is what the Gemara says with respect to Purim, that we should drink until we cannot tell the difference between "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordechai", the evil and saintly characters in the story of Purim. It is well known that many people, especially those who are "less than religious", take this aspect of Purim to heart, but forget the rest of the inyanim of the holiday. Even for those who are religious, it may be hard to internalize the reality that Purim is such a holy day, even holier than Yom Kippur. In fact, the sages pointed out that even the name of Yom Kippur points to the fact that Purim is holier, as Yom Kippur can be taken to mean "yom ki'pur(im)", or "A Day that is Like Purim". This explains why many people fail to internalize the importance of the day, as the yetzer hara (bad inclination) is working especially hard on this day to keep people from spiritual elevation. However, the story of Purim holds endless meaning for us on both personal and communal levels.
The nature of Megillas Esther, the scroll that contains the story of Purim, is to shroud the holiness of the day in mystery. It is commonly pointed out that G-d is not mentioned directly in the story even once, and even what we call the "miracles" or Purim seem to be nothing more than natural happenings. Even the name of the megillah, and the name of the heroine chosen to serve as the center point of the story, is directly connected to this notion of being hidden: Esther. The name Esther shares the shoresh (root) with hester, which means hidden. It is exactly in this concealment that the holiness of the day is found.
This Purim, I spent alot of time walking around, seeing Purim from different locations and perspectives. I saw secular people in Mamilla, who turned Purim into a children's carnival during the day, while at night the area had served as a night club for secular Israeli youth. I also saw religious people laying on street corners in puddles of vomit. The dichotomy of Yerushalayim is an interesting thing, and I never get tired of walking between Ben Yehudah and Meah Shearim, as it brings me from one time and world to another. After leaving my meal in Ramat Eshkol, I had a long walk ahead of me, and I used my walk as an excuse to see what was going on in Meah Shearim. The first place I visited was Toldos Ahron, where the drinking seemed to be taking a real toll on the men, a few of whom were passed out along the walkway into the synagogue. Once inside, one could feel the excitement of the crowd, eventhough the rebbe had retired for the evening. After Toldos Ahron, I visited Toldos Avraham Yitzchok, where people were vomiting and crying all over the place. Most of them were teenagers, as the adults were in the beis medrash by the rebbe. However, before I could get all the way in, the crowd began to exit, and as firmly as I tried to stand and move against the crowd, the spilled alcohol and vomit on the floor made my attempts to move against the crowd worthless, and I slid along out the door. When I returned to my neighborhood, the main street was filled with people from my yeshiva. After watching their debauchery for a bit, I went back to my apartment and went to sleep.
It was once I was back in my apartment that I began to think more about the significance of the concealment surrounding the holiday of Purim. In the dvar Torah that I delivered at my meal, I spoke about the interesting way that Purim is handled during a leap year. On a leap year, there are two Adars (the month in which Purim falls), and while all other observances of Adar take place in the second Adar, Purim has a relationship to both months. While the fully observed Purim is in Adar II, there is a day called Purim Katan (small Purim) in the first Adar. According to the sages, when Haman was looking for a time to destroy the Jewish people, he picked Adar I of a leap year, assuming that religious observances (such as a date of Moshe Rabbeinu's death) would take place in Adar II, leaving there to be no redeeming quality about the month of Adar I. However, because Mordechai had ruach hakodesh, he was able to see this, and led the great rabbis of the day to change the leap year to the next, putting Haman's plan in the regular Adar, where the merit of Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) would help the Jewish people. Because of this, each leap year we remember that Purim was originally "supposed" to be in Adar I.
Interestingly enough, the same Mordechai who did so many things to save the Jewish people, was originally looked down upon and viewed with suspicion. According to the Chasam Sofer, this was how the Jewish people viewed Gedolim from the time they received the Torah until Purim. As we know, it was only during Purim, centuries after the giving of the Torah, that the Jewish people came to fully accept the Oral Torah. The Chasam Sofer notes that this initial skepticism toward the Oral Torah is found in the Torah itself. When the Jewish people received the Torah from Sinai, they accepted, saying, "we will do, and we will understand", showing that whatever G-d wanted, the Jewish people were prepared to do. However, when the Jewish people complain about their inability to safely listen to G-d's voice, they tell Moshe do listen and then relate this portion of the Torah to them. With regard to this part of the Torah (the Oral Torah), the Jews switched their acceptance, and said, "we will hear, and then we will do". The Chasam Sofer points out that this means that would first decide if they liked what the Gadol HaDor said, and then they would act. This was the same until the generation of Purim, when they saw the Gadol's ability to use his knowledge and spiritual connection to lead the Jewish people to overturn a decree of death. At this point, they came to accept the Oral Torah fully, just as the Written Torah had been accepted at Har Sinai.
The Chasam Sofer says that the reason why the Jewish people were wary of the Sages is because they were people thought to be set apart from the rest of society, and didn't know about everyday life. The sages would be consulted regarding kashrus, Shabbos, taharas mishpacha, and other things that were "innately religious", but "chayei b'shouk", or "life in the marketplace" was not their realm of holy knowledge. The same applies to us today. People are very ready to admit that kashrus and Shabbos are places where religion has control, and that miracles such as the splitting of the Sea of Reeds are places where G-d is involved, but they seem to place less emphasis on the birth of a child, the changing of the seasons, or a simple breath. However, there is a principle in Judaism that the more "natural" (or hidden within the natural process) a miracle is, the more holy and elevated that miracle is. Because the Jews in the time of Purim were able to put their faith in the Tzadik Mordechai, they came to see the truth of "Ein Od Milvado" ("There is nothing except for G-d"), internalizing the reality that G-d extends into every area of existence. This led them to place their trust in Gedolim and fully accept the Oral Torah.
That is the greater meaning of Purim, and why the day soars higher than even Yom Kippur. Purim is the day that is meant to illuminate the deeper reality of life, to show the fullness of the truth that there is nothing except for G-d. The impact of internalizing this would have the same, if not a more enlightened, impact as teshuvah (repentance) on Yom Kippur. However, because we sadly cannot all elevate ourselves to such a revelation, Yom Kippur continues to exist. I once heard someone speak on the greatness of that which is hidden, and she said, "I think the more we get in touch with that state of not knowing the more humbled we are, the more we can listen, and the more we can surrender that there is more to all of this than we can ever possibly understand. The more hidden something is, the more holy it is." This is the message of Megillas Esther. It exists to be "maglei" the "hester panim" (to reveal the concealment of G-d in the world), where we do not know the difference between "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordechai" because we exist in the reality that Hashem is all there is, and what could be holier than that?