If I look backwards a full year, it is the whacky, drunken, masquerade holiday of Purim that marks the last moment in Jewish time I can remember before the world was really turned on its head by COVID.
On a surprisingly warm March day last year, silliness and merriment were present, but so too was a feeling that something big was coming. We celebrated our holiday of randomness and luck, even as we wondered what strange turns the days ahead would hold.
We had no idea.
Yesterday was Purim the fourteenth of Adar and tonight is shushan Purim, which is the day when ancient walled cities like Jerusalem celebrate. So tonight I want to focus on what Purim teaches us in this moment of our lives. But in order to do that we need to first look at something that happened many years before Esther and Mordechai.
If I were to ask you when and where did the Jews accept the Torah, you would say of course it was when they stood at Mount Sinai. But According to the rabbis of the Talmud, you would only be partially correct.
Because they say that it was not until the story of Purim that our people fully accepted the Torah.
They point out that for a contract like the Torah or any contract to become binding, both parties must enter into it willingly. If one of the parties is forced to sign and accept the terms against their will, then the contract is essentially non-binding. According to the midrash, when it says that the people stood b’tachtit hahar – the tuchus – at the lowermost part of Mt Sinai” It means that that they were actually standing under the mountain. that when the Torah was given the Holy One lifted up the mountain above their heads and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial.
Whether this is actually how it happened or not, it certainly must have felt like this.
The mountain was all in smoke, G-d came down upon it in fire; and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the shofar grew louder and louder. And As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.
It all sounds pretty terrifying.
The Talmud points out that because of this the Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding.
The greatest sage of the Talmud - Rava said: yes this may be true, but they did accept the Torah again willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as we see in the Megillah it says: “The Jews ordained, and took upon themselves, and upon their descendants, and upon all future converts”.
From here we learn that it was actually Purim when the Torah became a truly binding contract upon the Jews.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory said it beautifully, that “at Sinai the Jewish people had no choice but to accept the covenant. They had just been rescued from Egypt. God had divided the sea for them; He had sent them manna from heaven and water from the rock. Acceptance of a covenant under such conditions cannot be called free.
The real test of faith came when God was hidden.
Megillat Esther does not contain the name of God.
The name Esther is an allusion to the phrase in the Torah haster astir et panai, “I will surely hide My face someday.” The megillah tells the story of the first attempted genocide against the Jewish people.
That Jews remained Jews under such conditions was proof positive that they did indeed reaffirm the covenant.
That is to say when they were faced with God’s presence at Sinai, they accepted the Torah out of fear and they disobeyed G-d in worshipping the golden calf and in so many other ways.
But when confronted with G-d’s absence in the Persian exile, they stayed faithful to G-d and accepted the Torah with love.
The exile of our people – living so far away from home in a foreign land it is like a teenager running away from home after becoming filled with doubts about everything that he received from his parents. Out here in the world all alone that teenager wants to know who he really is, to know himself, to reveal his powers.
To assess the difference between what is really his and what he was coerced to receive from his parents and teachers.
According to the Sefat Emet, it is in exile that we learned to pray, to be alone, to speak to God, to feel, to sense, to listen to the voice of God that speaks inside of us. To know that even in the absence of a great light, God illuminates the darkness of the innermost parts of the body.
Last Purim we bumped elbows, there was hand sanitizer near the hamentashen and we listened to the story of Esther, laughing and noisemaking to celebrate a holy story in which God is noticeably absent.
This year we feared that the pandemic would take away the joy of Purim, but yet we still managed to find a way to hear the story with a smile and even a few laughs we still managed to find the joy of Purim despite being in exile from our building.
Purim teaches us the secret of exile, that when the Divine is hidden, it is upon us to find our own sense of meaning and purpose. It is upon us to manifest holiness in our world through our own actions. It's a Torah that comes not from the top of the mountain but one that rises up from within us standing here at the bottom of the mountain.
Shabbat Shalom and happy Shushan Purim
In this week's Torah portion Parshat Bo we read about the three final plagues that G-d brings down upon Egypt, the final blows to Pharoah and the mighty empire that enslaved our people for hundreds of years.
And many of our sages describe the plagues, that each one is sending a very clear message to the Egyptians that there is one Creator of the Universe. That Hashem can at any moment take away the powers of nature that the Egyptians worshipped as gods.
Beginning with the blood as an attack on the goddess of the Nile and onward through first 8 plagues in last week's parsha we can see a progressive deconstruction of Egyptian society both physically and spiritually. Each one is meant to be a kind of education to the Egyptian people and meant to give a chance for Pharoah to recognize G-d’s sovereignty over himself and over all the forces of nature.
There were frogs, and then lice, and each time Pharoah says no you may not go and worship your G-d
Their animals were all killed by dever – the plague
Then the boils.
In our weekly parsha study on Thursday at 12:30 we looked at how G-d strengthened Pharoah’s heart so that he wouldn’t give in just because he was scared of the next plague,
G-d strengthened Pharoah’s resolve so that he would have the ability to give in not out of fear of the plagues but that he would truly repent in his heart and acknowledge that G-d is all powerful, and that he was wrong to hold the people captive.
Then Barad – the fiery hail destroys much of their vegetation, but Pharoah is too bound up in his ego to relent, he strengthens his heart again and says no.
And Now our parshah begins with arbeh, the locusts that come and destroy whatever vegetation is left after the hail
God now hardens Pharoah’s heart by challenging his ego
He sends Moses and Aaron to say to him, “Thus says YHWH, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My people go that they may worship Me. For if you refuse to let My people go, tomorrow I will bring locusts on your territory.
They shall cover the surface of the land, so that no one will be able to see the land. They shall devour the surviving remnant that was left to you after the hail; and they shall eat away all your trees that grow in the field. And they will fill your houses and courtyards like nothing your people has ever seen.
And then there is a kind of attack on Pharoah’s status as a god – His Egyptian courtiers come to him and say, Ad matay yihyeh lanu zeh l’mokesh – How long will you let this one be a trap to us? Let the men go and worship their G-d.
Haterem teida ki avdah Mitzrayim? Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?”
We have no future here – its time to call it off!
His servents bring Moshe and Aaron back to him and Pharoah tries to bargain his way out, maybe he can hold onto so some shred of dignity some semblance of power. He offers Moses to let just adult men go to Mt Sinai.
But Moses says, “We will all go, young and old, we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds to our festival of Hashem”
NO, Pharoah cannot give in now he’s in too deep, he's too tightly bound to his hurt ego
Moshe extends his arms and his staff and an east wind brings a thick mass of locusts that hide the entire land from view and quickly there is nothing green left in the land of Egypt.
Pharoah has a change of heart and brings Moses and Aaron back. Now he finally admits, “I have sinned before Hashem your G-d and before you. Please remove this death from me!”
And when the locusts leave, but his heart is hardened yet again and he says no.
President Biden must have picked up on this concept (or maybe he had a Jewish speech writer!) when he said in his inaugural speech,
"We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this - if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”
The sages suggest that it was God's initial plan A, for Pharaoh to open his own soul so that he could have compassion, and humility, to be able to stand in another persons shoes just for a moment and to let them go on his own accord.
But Pharoah’s heart had become petrified to the point of no return and he again says NO
Moshe held out his arm toward the sky and a choshech afelah a thick darkness – descended upon the land of Egypt for three days.
Lo ra’u ish et achiv – it was so dark that one could not see the face of the other
The commentators consider this at first a strange 9th plague,
you know this sounds bad and all but compared to the other plagues boils, fiery hail, locusts.
Okay so it was dark for a few days, but how is this worse than all the previous ones?
Some explain this by saying that the darkness was an attack on the most powerful god of Egypt the Sun god Ra
But another explanation is the psychological one –
That this darkness wasn’t just the absence of light, it was a deeply menacing environmental malaise
14th century French commentator – the Ralbag – Gersonides says the air itself had a kind of poisonous quality to it such that the Egyptians had to plug their noses and cover their mouths with masks during the entire duration of the plague not only that, but he points out that the Torah itself describes the darkness as having a thickness to it such that lo kamu ish mitachtav shloshet yamim –
people couldn’t even stand up for three days. They were paralyzed
mitachtav could mean underneath them – that they could not stand up from underneath themselves but he thinks this translation is awkward sounding he understands this to mean – that they couldn’t stand up mitachtav – from the fear.
That people couldn’t stand up because they were so terrified
And this reveals an important insight about the plague of darkness –
which is that even more than the darkness itself, is the internal darkness the psychological darkness
The idea that we can’t get up… We can’t take action… We have no power…
And that, is really the greatest plague, when we lose all sense of power and agency and can’t see the face of the other, when we lose the ability to connect.
This is such an important message for us in our time when we have become isolated stuck in our homes, when we cover our faces literally not being able to see the face of the other.
And there has been so much fear and anxiety and distrust and that that has been the plague,
The plague is the fear, just as much as we face this incredibly serious public health crisis, even more so is the social upheaval and hatred, the plague of fear is what really gives rise to the hate.
That noxious air that makes us even more cut off from each other.
And so the best antidote, the solution to this darkness is the ability to find within ourselves and that light. And I couldn’t put it any better than the young poet who shared those beautiful words with us this week at the capitol, Amanda Gorman who said the following.
There is always light, if only we are brave enough to see it. If only we are brave enough to be it.
In the Torah it says during this plague of darkness וּֽלְכָל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם
And to all of the children of Israel there was light in their homes.
As we welcome in this Shabbat with the light of the candles and the light of Shabbat itself,
May that light fill our homes and fill our hearts with a reminder that that candle inside each of us is burning and is yet still yearning for love and connection and the ability to be that light.
Rabbi Aaron Philmus
Rabbi Aaron brings a traditional style and approach of prayer to the conservative synagogue. He has a background in ecology and Jewish education and teaches Torah through agriculture and wilderness skills, and plays guitar as a way to bring music to the synagogue. He’s a naturalist who believes that everything stems from nature, and he understands the plight of others who are less fortunate, and how to use the land to enrich ourselves.