The Holiday That Includes All Others
On Purim, the real covenant was born
Continued from page 1
The message here, I think, is that personal change has repercussions that reach far beyond the self. The Jewish people as a whole are saved by the single decision of one of its members. Judaism thus tells us loudly and clearly: Resist the temptation to divide the world into "politics" on the one hand and "spirituality" on the other. Bring the presence and the will of God into both. Purim thus represents the intertwining of Rosh Hashanah and Passover in the lives of real (not predictably heroic) people.
Turn for a moment to Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks. According to tradition, Shavuot commemorates the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. In an extremely striking image, the Talmud suggests that God held Mount Sinai over the heads of the Jewish people and proclaimed: "If you accept the Torah, well and good. But if not, here shall be your burial place." This is not exactly the stuff that respect for free will and a real relationship are made of, and the rabbis protest passionately. If this scenario accurately represents what happened at Sinai, one sage suggests, then the Torah and the covenant are totally invalid, since they were offered under duress.
Surprisingly, this theological crisis is solved by invoking Purim. Aplayful 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 eachmitzvah
(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 Godwants
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.