The Holiday That Includes All Others

On Purim, the real covenant was born

 

Continued from page 1

Surprisingly, this theological crisis is solved by invoking Purim. A playful reading of a verse in the Book of Esther allows the rabbis to claim that the covenant was renewed at Purim--this time with no threatening mountain in sight. Thus, Purim replaces Shavuot as the holiday during which the eternal covenant of God and Israel is cemented.

But why? What is this mountain that threatens the Israelites and, thus, the integrity of the covenant itself? The Talmud, I think, is making a critical theological point. At Sinai, God seems to promise that Israel will be rewarded amply for doing the good and punished severely for going astray. But if this is the case, all we have here is self-interest and enforced obedience: I abstain from murder so that the land may produce its fill, and I observe Shabbat lest the rains cease. This is not exactly a lofty vision of relatedness and mutuality. Real covenant would entail the Jewish people doing God's will simply because it is God's will and recognizing that each

mitzvah

(commandment) is its own reward. Put simply, reward and punishment of the type seemingly promised by the Torah militate against covenant and commitment freely chosen. But God

wants

covenant and commitment freely chosen.

Hence Purim. We search in vain for a God who splits seas and appears in majestic glory over desert mountaintops. We encounter instead the real lives of real people in real time. Disaster appears imminent, and still no overt signs of divine intervention can be detected. The decree is averted, and the Jewish people saved--but still no incontrovertible appearances on God's part. A Jew may (ought, in fact) discern God at work in this redemptive unfolding, but she is not forced to do so. She may thank God for her (and our) salvation, but the rains will remain unaffected by her choices.

This, say the rabbis, is the ultimate covenantal moment: Esther, and we, are given the choice of doing God's will in the world or of turning our backs on God and God's aspirations. God still beckons us, but in a voice far less thunderous than the voice of Sinai and Shavuot. The opportunity lies before us for covenant and commitment freely chosen.

Perhaps that is why the Rabbis tell us that "when [the month of] Adar enters, we make abundant merriment." The deepest joy for a Jew, they seem to be telling us, is not to watch God thwart evil with dramatic interventions. The deepest joy, rather, is to do the will of God without thought of reward or punishment and to discover the hand of God in places where it appears to be absent. Standing at a split sea where redemption has occurred is an occasion for joy; living in a real world in which fidelity to the covenant narrowly averts disaster is an occasion for even greater joy.

Purim and Sukkot--the Festival of Booths--are the two holidays of joy in the Jewish year. Sukkot, uniquely, commemorates not a moment or an event, but a long, often painful journey embarked upon together, the years of wandering in the desert. Sukkot, therefore, is the biblical festival of continuous fidelity.

So if we seek to mark covenantal fidelity, why Purim rather than Sukkot?

We find a critical clue to the answer, I think, in this week's Torah portion. As the building of the Tabernacle is completed, we learn that God's presence filled the Tabernacle so tangibly that Moses could not even enter the tent of meeting (Exodus 40:35).

One can only imagine the power and grandeur of this scene. But that is precisely the point: For the rabbis of the Talmud (and, it goes without saying, for us), the presence of God is far less obviously manifest than it was in the Tabernacle. God's presence is more subtle, even elusive, and it must be searched for and sought after. If we look hard enough, we can find it. And looking hard is the message of Purim rather than Sukkot.

The Kotzker Rebbe's dramatic claim begins to make sense after all. Purim teaches us, first, that the personal and communal-global are inextricably intertwined, and that the Torah's goal is the transformation and betterment of both (Rosh Hashanah and Passover). It reminds us, second, that real covenantal commitment becomes possible precisely in a world in which God's presence must be discerned rather than punitively experienced (Shavuot).

And it tells us, finally, that real joy is born in mutuality and commitment rather than in utter dependence and passivity (Sukkot). All the holidays are included in Purim.

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