Beliefnet
This week in New Orleans, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, and in other cities around the world, people are donning masks, dancing, calling out suggestive and sometimes crude greetings to strangers, and imbibing huge quantities of liquor in celebration of Mardi Gras. Don't get me wrong; I'm not disapproving. Mardi Gras is a lot of fun, particularly when one is young and single. There's something wonderful in a whole city declaring itself one grand party for a relatively short period of time each year. Traditionally, the excesses of Mardi Gras precede Lent, in which (theoretically at least) a lengthy period of deprivation in preparation for Good Friday is seen as atoning for any indiscretions of the previous week. Why doesn't Judaism have a holy day similar to Mardi Gras?

The answer can be found in this week's Torah portion, which lays out the Jewish position toward excess, even in regard to a good thing. The Hebrews are wandering in the desert after the revelation at Sinai. They need to build a portable holy space in which to conduct religious services and continue their encounter with the Divine. Moses puts out a call for materials for the sacred tabernacle (the mishkan, literally the "place of God's indwelling").

Moses says, "Bring from among you gifts to Adonai; everyone whose heart is so moved: gold, silver, and copper; blue purple and crimson yarn, fine linen, goat fleece; tanned skins; acacia wood; fine oil, spices, and aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other fine stones" (Exodus 35:5-9). Remember this isn't a tax. It is a free-will offering. The Torah teaches that the people, far from being stingy or hoarding their valuables, brought everything they had. From morning to night people lined up to give their goods to build the mishkan. Huge piles of gold and gemstones rose in the barren desert. There was so much stuff, the people in charge of building the sanctuary didn't know what to do!

Moses then proclaimed throughout the Hebrew encampment, "Let no man or woman make further effort for gifts for the mishkan." The people stopped bringing gifts; their efforts had been more than enough for all that needed to be done (Exodus 36:6-7). Notice that Moses didn't say, "Okay, we have more and more material--let's make a bigger tabernacle!" and Moses didn't say, "Wow, look at all this wealth, let's divide it among the chieftains and the priests, so we can all live like the princes of Egypt." It is clear from the story that the people would have kept bringing goods willingly, even enthusiastically, for some time to come. But Moses declared that enough was enough, and it was time to put an end to the fervor of giving. It was too much of a good thing.

Judaism, as a moral system, tends to avoid extremes. It rejects both asceticism and indulgence. The Jewish rules of tzedakah (often translated as "charity," but more accurately rendered "social justice") tell us that a person may not impoverish himself or herself in order to help others. Judaism favors fulfillment within limits. The Sages teach: "If one who refrains from wine is called a sinner, how much more is one who refrains from everything. Habitual fasting is a sin." On the other hand, drinking or eating to excess is also frowned upon. The dietary laws (kashrut) are, in part, Judaism's attempt at making eating a holy act through moderation. Jews are not required to be vegetarians; neither should they eat without consciousness of limits.

The Jewish emphasis on moderation is most evident in its view of sexuality. Judaism rejects the view that sex is inherently bad. In fact, Judaism views sex as a mitzvah (a moral imperative)! However, Judaism does not support the exploitation of sexuality and the cult of the perfect body that was common to the ancient Greco-Roman world and is prevalent in our modern one. According to Jewish ethics, sex--like drinking, eating, and giving--is a joy best found within boundaries. I'm sure this view would be a bit of a disappointment to some of the revelers in the French Quarter.

The truth, though, is that Judaism does have its own version of Mardi Gras. It's called Purim, and this year it will fall on the evening of March 20. That's when Jews dress up in masks, dance, and even drink. But even our holy day of excess is pretty moderate. Purim festivities are more likely to be family carnivals than wild adult parties. As a religious culture, we tend to favor the tame over the ecstatic, and the middle over the extremes. Although this week I may view Mardi Gras with some small amount of intercultural envy, I understand and appreciate the message of the Torah, that limits are as sacred as excess.

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