by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 26, 1999
On Purim, we celebrate our deliverance from Haman's clutches with a series of striking reversals from our normal behavior. Models of sobriety, for instance, can be found drinking like longshoremen, albeit with far different results. (I have seen plenty of ridiculous Purim drunks, but never a mean one.)
Among great Torah scholars, one can witness the process of 'the wine enters and secrets come out' - the secrets of Torah. Levels of understanding they do not speak of publicly the rest of the year are revealed on Purim. A friend once described a teacher of ours on Purim: 'When you come to his house the rest of the year, he asks you how you are and then starts speaking words of Torah. On Purim, he forgets to ask you how you are.'
Jews generally do not give full vent to their laughter. That laughter is reserved for a future time: 'Then will our mouths be filled with laughter,' says the Psalmist.
On Purim, however, all such restraints are removed. Rabbi Elhanon Wasserman, one of the leaders of pre-war European Jewry, who returned from the safety of America to be martyred together with his students in the Kovno ghetto, never smiled during the year. Yet he laughed so hard during the Purimspiel that he would beg the performers to stop.
The transformation on Purim of people of the most serious mien can be quite startling.
If I had to pinpoint a single common characteristic of the community of bnei Torah among whom I live, I would say it is the seriousness with which they approach life. Looking around shul on a Shabbat morning, there is no one I can imagine as a college drinking buddy. These are people who value every minute and push away sleep to extract the most out of their time. Words too are hoarded. Speaking to the most elevated among
them, one can almost feel each word being measured out with care.
The exposure to people possessing such gravitas is what first draws most ba'alei teshuva to a Torah life. They are attracted by a vision of life filled with meaning and purpose - a life in which each moment is an opportunity to elevate oneself and the world. No one wants to accept life as just a process of marking time and stimulating the nerve endings. Judaism presents a world in which each action and word is imbued with cosmic significance, and the religious community provides models of those who live life accordingly.
The antithesis to the Jewish attitude to life is that of the scoffer, who belittles and denigrates everything and everyone. He trivializes life and denies it any ultimate meaning. 'Don't bother to reprove the scoffer,' Proverbs teaches, for a person who takes nothing seriously is not one who can change and grow.
OUR merrymaking on Purim is far removed from this scoffing. We too make fun, but our target is those who deny the importance of life. We thereby affirm life. Our scoffing is directed at Haman and his ancestor Amalek and Amalek's grandfather Esau, the rabbinic paradigms for all those who deny life any significance.
Esau recognized nothing beyond the here and now: 'And he ate and drank and got up and went and despised the birthright.' The divine service that went with the birthright was contemptible in Esau's eyes. He recognized no connection to anything outside of himself and valued nothing beside the immediate satisfaction of his animal needs.
After having wrestled with the guardian angel of Esau, Jacob asks the angel his name. 'Why do you ask my name?" the angel replies. The angel was not just following the time-honored Jewish custom of answering a question with a question. He was saying, 'I have no name, no essence; I'm that which can never withstand any probing. I represent a world where all values are transitory, provisional, unrooted in any transcendent reality.'
A little girl asks her mother what she should want to be when she grows up, and her mother tells her, 'To be pretty and rich and popular." But when the daughter asks why she should want to be any of these things, her mother can do no more than ridicule her question on the grounds that everybody wants these things.
Like the angel of Esau, the mother resists any deeper inquiry. Her inability to point to any standard other than popular opinion mimics the inability of the angel of Esau to define himself.
Never was this world's connection to God so clear as in the Exodus from Egypt. The nations all trembled in awe of the Jewish people, and none came forward to do battle. Except for Amalek.
Amalek thrust the Jewish people back into the realm of history, removed from any transcendental context. Prior to Amalek's attack, no nation even conceived the possibility of waging war against the Jews - the miracles in Egypt made God's protection too clear. Amalek was routed, but the awe was gone. Now other nations could attribute Amalek's defeat to a strategic error of some kind, and devise their own superior strategies.
Amalek is thus compared to one who jumps into a scalding bath and cools it for all those who follow. He cooled off awareness of God, awareness of a world of meaning and purpose.
When the rest of the created world reaches its final fulfillment, Amalek is destined for destruction. Because he denies all purpose and meaning in life, he has no potential that can be realized.
When that final revelation occurs and all the Hamans and Amaleks are destroyed forever, we will recognize our laughter on Purim as having foreshadowed the future laughter of which King David speaks.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Purim
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