Sunday, March 23, 2008

Purim Afterthoughts, Part II

For the first time, I have made extensive use of Hebrew in this post. Don't worry, I don't intend to make a habit of it. My apologies to all readers who feel left out, but Hebrew makes it is easier to keep things brief and I'm pressed for time. Special thanks to my father, Rabbi Noam Gordon of Jerusalem, for encouraging me to put my Purim thoughts in writing. There is much here that is neither new nor mine, but I believe there is enough that warrents a post. To fully appreciate this post, I recommend reading part-one first.

Right before Amalek attacks, we read:
וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, מַסָּה וּמְרִיבָה. עַל-רִיב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְעַל נַסֹּתָם אֶת-יְהוָה לֵאמֹר, הֲיֵשׁ יְהוָה בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ, אִם-אָיִן. וַיָּבֹא עֲמָלֵק
Amalek is not a tribe; it is a way of thinking. It is the force in the universe that refuses to recognize the Hand of God and the Chosenness of Israel. After the Exodus the Jews were hot and untouchable, but then they doubted God's presence. It was this doubt that introduces an Amalek who smashes the aura of reverence and cools things down. Ever since, Hashem's Throne and Name are damaged, and so they will remain until the day that Amalek is annihilated.

That day is tomorrow. Moshe told Yehoshua, בחר לנו אנשים וצא הלחם בעמלק מחר. King David overtook Amalek, ויכם דוד מהנשף ועד הערב למחרתם. And Esther told Achashveirosh, ינתן גם מחר ליהודים. Why is it always tomorrow? Because the destruction of Amalek is not merely the physical destruction of an evil race. It is the destruction of our own lack of clarity about who is the One running the show. And that can only come when we get to the end of the story and can go back and read it again from the beginning. Tomorrow.

Chanukah is in the past. רבת את רבם, דנת את דינם, נקמת את נקמתם (Al Ha'Nissim for Chanukah). But the Megillah is today. הרב את רבינו, הדן את דנינו, הנוקם את נקמתינו (Asher Heini). Purim is happening now because in every generation Amalek rises up to destroy us. מלחמה ליהוה בעמלק מדור דור - בכל דור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותינו. This is why we say in Shoshanas Yaakov that the Megillah is a source of hope in every generation: "ותקותם בכל דור ודור" (R. Dovid Cohen, "ימי פורים"). The Megillah gives us hope because we are always in the middle of it!

We live in the Megillah today and Purim is tomorrow. For the destruction of Amalek only comes after Amalek is already gone.
והיה בהניח יהוה אלוהיך לך מכל איביך מסביב... תמחה את זכר עמלק
"זכר עמלק" - the residue of Amalek. This זכר can be erased only when Amalek and all of his cohorts are gone - בהניח יהוה אלוהיך לך מכל איביך - because to erase the זכר of Amalek we need מנוחה. We need מנוחה to reread the story slowly and see Hashem's Hand guiding things from the get go. We need מנוחה to recognize the רפואה before the מכה. This is why והיה בהניח must happen first.

When we are in the midst of things, we are בדרך. And Amalek always gets us on the דרך. When we are on the road, attempting to navigate through the darkness of our story, we suffer from the anxiety of frightening events and Hashem's apparent absence. We lack מנוחה, and עמלק & ספק (same gematria) enter our lives. אשר קרך בדרך. Our job is to destroy this זכר of Amalek, and that can be done only with the מנוחה that comes after Amalek is gone. That is why Purim is celebrated not on the 13th when we killed Amalek, but on the 14th when we had מנוחה. As the פסוק states, "ונוח בארבעה עשר בו". Purim is always on the morrow.

And now we come to Yerushalayim. Even when Yerushalayimites read the Megillah at night they are not fasting. Yerushalayim has that extra clarity. And Yerushalayim, Hashem's throne, always celebrates Purim tomorrow. On the fifteenth, when יום טוב is supposed to be.

This is why פורים משולש is celebrated on Sunday. The day after. Shabbos requires none of the מצות היום of Purim, for the מנוחה of Shabbos itself destroys Amalek (Zohar, עי' שפת אמת). With the help of the מנוחה and clarity of Shabbos, Purim is pushed beyond Purim into an ordinary day of the year, the 16th, bringing the tomorrow we are all waiting for ever closer into our world.

Purim Afterthoughts

With Haman hanged and my hangover behind me, I'm going to try to put some Purim thoughts on paper (um, whatever). I've got to keep this short; a Focus deadline is fast approaching and I'm pressed for time. So wish me luck. V'Hameivin Yavin.

There are two Megillahs.

One Megillah is a story of exile; a story of attempted annihilation; a story of God's absence; a story of hopelessness. It is a frightening read. It is read at night, while we fast. Obviously, this Megillah has no seudah associated with it.

There is another Megillah. This Megillah is a story of redemption, a story of a refuah set up in advance of a makkah, a story where the Hand of God is as clear as day. It is a delight to read. It is read in the daytime and it generates a mitzvah to party - hard. This second Megillah is created by the first Megillah. Once we get to the end of the story, we are impelled to read it again from the beginning. And the second time around it's a very different story.

The Talmud teaches: "Anyone who says things in the name of the one who first said them brings redemption to the world." (Sorry, I forgot who said that.) The source for this idea is Esther. She reported an assassination attempt in the name of Mordechai and this, says the Talmud, brought redemption to the world.

Did it, really? By all appearances, all her report accomplished was to get Mordechai a free ride on a horse. Redemption came through Esther's influence with the king. The entire episode of Mordechai's foiling the assassination and his subsequent reward could be deleted from the Megillah with no ill effect. The scene of Haman leading Mordechai through the streets is gratifying, but it is certainly not necessary for redemption. Why does the Talmud think otherwise?

When Haman returns home and tells his wife what happened, she responds by saying that if Mordechai is indeed of Jewish desent, then Haman is finished. Prophetic words; indeed, within a few short hours, her husband was dead. But how did she know? Yes, he had a bad day, but he was still the most powerful man in the empire and he was on his way to a private party with the king and the queen. Zeresh had no way of knowing that Esther was Jewish! She should have told her husband to take a hot shower, get over it and cheer up. How did she know that Haman was doomed?

Zeresh was a smart lady. She knew it was no mere coincidence that just as Haman is about to ask the king for permission to kill Mordechai, the king is reminded that Mordechai saved his life. Instead of hanging Mordechai, Haman is dressing him in the king's clothes and leading him through the streets on the king's horse?! This can mean only one thing. The God of Israel has arrived. And when the God of Israel shows up, it's game over.

By reporting the assassination attempt in the name of Mordechai, Esther created the avenue through which God arrives on the scene. The Talmud is only affirming what Zeresh saw. It is God's arrival that guarantees redemption; not Esther's political shenanigans.

Zeresh's insight echoes Mordechai's sharp response to Esther just a few days earlier: "Revach v'hatzalah ya'amod la'Yehudim mimakom acher." We don't need you, Esther. If you do nothing, the Jews will be saved some other way. God will show up in due time. The only question is if you will play a role.

Zeresh and Mordechai think alike. We don't need Esther.

Some people wonder why God's Name does not appear in the Megillah, but Reb Shlomo Charlebach didn't understand the question. Why should God's Name be in the Megillah? God is the one telling us the story!

With Reb Shlomo's insight, we gain a new appreciation for the words of the sages. "Anyone who says things in the name of the one who first said them brings redemption to the world." We need to remember that God was the one who first said the Megillah. He spoke when Vashti was killed and Esther was chosen, He spoke when Mordechai overheard Bigson & Seresh, and He spoke when Achashveirosh couldn't sleep that night. God wrote and directed this story. We should cite Him as the source of redemption, not Esther.

If Zeresh recognized this truth, so should we. And when we do, we create an avenue that brings God, and redemption, into the world.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Passing Ring

Not more than a two hours ago in the holiest city in the world, in a house of Torah study on the eve of the happiest month something happened... Please ask yourself what happened.. to whom and why and what you will do about it... will you sit tonight fork and knife in hand over a thick steak.. perhaps watch a movie or read... will your life go on with nothing more than a shrug?

I sure hope not.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Piggyback Ride, Anyone?

An unusual design feature in the vestments of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) set me thinking. It's hard to describe without a photo, but considering that the Torah prefers things that way (see our post on parshat Terumah), we'll stick to verbal descriptions. I couldn't find a decent online image for it anyhow.

Both literally and figuratively, the "Choshen" was the centerpiece of the Kohen Gadol's outfit. An extravagant breastplate with the names of the twelve tribes etched onto its twelve precious stones, the Choshen was bound to the Kohen Gadol's chest with golden and woolen cords.
Aaron will thus carry the names of the Children of Israel on the Choshen of Judgment upon his heart when he comes into the sanctuary. It shall be a constant remembrance before God."
Shemot 28:29
Interestingly, the Torah describes how the Choshen was attached to the Kohen's body even before it tells us what the Choshen is. Moreover, the Torah spends more verses describing this method of attachment than it spends describing the Choshen itself! The Torah is emphasizing a seemingly insignificant detail; we would do well to take a closer look.

The Choshen was attached to the body by means of the "Eiphod." While certain elements of the Eiphod's design are a mystery, the points relevant to our discussion are quite clear. (That is, despite certain textual ambiguities, both Rashi and the Rambam are in agreement as to the Torah's meaning. We can speak with confidence.)

The Eiphod was sort of an apron worn backwards which tied on above the waist with a built-in belt. In the back, two straps went up from the belt, extending over the Kohen's shoulders, and at the shoulder, each of these straps had golden setting for a sardonyx stone. Like the stones of the Choshen, these stones had the names of all twelve tribes etched into them - six tribes on one stone and six on the other.
Place the two stones on the two shoulder straps of the Eiphod as remembrance stones for the Children of Israel. Aaron shall carry their names on his two shoulders before God as a remembrance.
Shemot 28:12

Right beneath the two stones, two golden cords descended from the shoulder straps and looped through rings at the top two corners of the square Choshen. This held the Choshen securely from the top, but that alone would not prevent the Chosen from swinging away from the body when the Kohen leaned forward. For that, there were another two rings on the bottom two corners of the Choshen, through which two woolen cords were drawn and tied down to the Eiphod.

Here is the interesting point in the design. We might have expected those bottom two cords to attach directly to the belt of the Eiphod beneath them. But this is not the case. The Torah tells us to draw the two cords around to the Kohen's back and tie them to rings at the bottom of the shoulder straps (28:27-28). It seems that the entire Choshen, all four corners of it, must be supported exclusively by the Eiphod's shoulder straps. Strange, is it not?

In order to understand this design feature, we must first understand the meaning of the Choshen itself.

The story of the Choshen begins in a much darker era, at a time when no one dared dream of a Mishkan. Newborn babes lie dead at the floor of the Nile, Jewish slaves pick cotton in the Egyptian fields, and God is meeting with Moshe at a bush in the desert. God tells Moshe to return to Egypt and redeem the Jews, but Moshe has concerns. He is worried about his speech defect, and he is worried how this mission will affect his relationship with his older brother. Moshe suggests that God send Aaron instead.

God got angry at Moshe. "I am well aware that Aaron your brother, the Levite, is a good speaker. He is setting out to greet you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart!"

Shemot 4:14

This is the majesty of Aaron. Transcending the sibling rivalry endemic to the book of Bereishit, he is happy for his younger brother's success. A heart of this caliber deserves a little jewelry.
Rabbi Milai said, "In reward for [Aaron's] seeing [Moshe] and rejoicing in his heart, Aaron merited that the Choshen of Judgment would be on his heart."

Talmud, Shabbat 139a

It seems that the placement of the twelve tribes on the Kohen Gadol's heart is a symbol of his selfless, brotherly love for the entire nation. But what is the secret of the Choshen of Judgment? What will stop people from judging others negatively? How can we ensure that all twelve tribes are held securely against our hearts? What will prevent personal agendas from getting in the way of love for the nation? The answer is obvious: Strap the nation on your shoulders!

If we place all twelve tribes on our shoulders, if we step up to the plate and take responsibility for the Jewish People, if we lift up the names of the Children of Israel and carry them proudly, then we can be sure that the Choshen of Judgment will never sway from our hearts. Such was the message of the holy garments of the Kohen Gadol.

What do your clothes say?