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
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.