Sunday, February 28, 2010

Breaking the cycle

An adapted version of Shalom's drash at Adas

(without the shpieling)

As a skeptical teen-ager, I read Milton Steinberg's As a Driven Leaf.  Decades later, one particular scene remains with me.  Rabbi Akiva is imprisoned by the Romans (thanks to an informant who was an apostate rabbi, but that's a longer story).  Even in such dire straits, he is still focused on responding to the urgent questions smuggled to him by the Jewish community on the outside.  One such question (p. 446): Do the Psalms of Solomon belong in Tanach?

For some reason, this question really struck me.  You mean historical figures, painted in such flesh-and-blood terms in Steinberg's novel, were deciding which books were sacred and which were not?  Then what made them sacred?  And how could someone raise themselves above such degrading circumstances as a Roman prison (described graphically in the novel) to focus on such ethereal questions?  The intimate and confusing mingling of sacred and profane in this scene has stuck with me all these years.

It turns out the novel's scene with Rabbi Akiva is based on the Mishnah (Yadayim 3:5).  But what did I know of mishnah as a skeptical teen-ager?  It also turns out the Megillat Ester is one of the books subject to some dispute.  But what is the dispute really about -- what would it mean if a given book were determined to be "in" or "out" of Tanach?

Rabbi Marouf, the rabbi at Magen David, the sephardi shul in Rockville, addressed this question recently.  He concludes, based partly on the Rambam's Hilchot Talmud Torah (laws of studying torah) that "becoming a book of Tanach is more a function of the laws of Torah Study than of a particular book's intrinsic value."  By including Megillat Esther, we are committing ourselves collectively to making it a standard part of our curriculum, worth consistent and focused attention, year after year.

Okay -- so what is that we learn from Megillat Ester?  What's the teaching that made this book important enough to include in our regular curriculum, i.e. Tanach?  Rabbi Elizabeth Richman gives one important answer.  What's the narrative fulcrum of Megillat Esther?  Surely, it's the decree that Haman convinced the King to issue (3:13), giving authorization:

לְהַשְׁמִיד לַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד אֶת-כָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים מִנַּעַר וְעַד-זָקֵן טַף וְנָשִׁים בְּיוֹם אֶחָד, בִּשְׁלוֹשָׁה עָשָׂר לְחֹדֶשׁ שְׁנֵים-עָשָׂר הוּא-חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר; וּשְׁלָלָם, לָבוֹז

"to destroy, to massacre, to exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month -- that is, the month of Adar -- and to plunder their possessions."

The horror of this decree, and its all too familiar repetitions and implementations through our history as a people, is what requires the layers of protective and curative ritual -- the antics, the alcohol, the absurdities of Purim celebrations.  Nonetheless this is the verse that we quote, almost in its entirety, in the "al ha-Nissim" for davenning on Purim.

Rabbi Richman points out that after Haman's classic denouement, the counter-decree issued at Mordechai and Esther's request -- dramatically introduced by the longest verse in all of Tanach -- is essentially identical (8:11-12):

לְהַשְׁמִיד וְלַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד אֶת-כָּל-חֵיל עַם וּמְדִינָה הַצָּרִים אֹתָם, טַף וְנָשִׁים; וּשְׁלָלָם, לָבוֹז

בְּיוֹם אֶחָד, בְּכָל-מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ--בִּשְׁלוֹשָׁה עָשָׂר לְחֹדֶשׁ שְׁנֵים-עָשָׂר, הוּא-חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר

"to destroy, to massacre, to exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions -- on a single day in all the provinces of King Ahashverosh, namely, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth mount, that is, the month of Adar."

Except for substituting "its armed force" for "all the Jews", all the other phrases in the decree are identical.  Is this what victory consists of?  As Rabbi Richman puts it, adopting the language of our oppressor?  That the Jews should emulate Haman, of all people, so perfectly?  Of course not -- for in the events described in the Megillah, the Jews don't actually fulfill that decree.  We do kill 75,811 men -- but no mention is made of any massacre by Jews of women or children.  And the text specifies that "they did not lay hands on the spoil" (in sharp contrast to the haftarah of Shabbat Zachor).  In fact, disdaining the spoils of war is mentioned in three different verses, and is also the conclusive response in the gemara (Megilla 7a) discussing whether or not Megillat Esther was written with Ruach ha-Kodesh (divinely inspired).

For Rabbi Richman, this lesson taught by studying Megillat Esther (and in observing Ta'anit Esther) is to "help us reflect on the transition from powerlessness to power. For both communities and individuals who have gained power, it can be easy to unthinkingly imitate those who have oppressed us."  I view the lesson as the equivalent of a Geneva Convention -- a recognition that even when doing something awful, we must still abide by certain restraints that make us human.

But I am not satisfied with the lesson, not at all.  It reminds me of what happened when I was an undergraduate student in a ROTC class (long story...).  The topic one day was chemical warfare, including what was back then a fairly left-wing proposal for a Chemical Weapons Convention (which is now international law).  All of these military officer candidates in my class, to my shock, supported the idea!  That afternoon, I talked optimistically to a good friend of mine, a campus radical, about the common ground I had found between do-gooder arms-control and hard-core military types.  But she wanted no part of it.  From her perspective, warfare was always warfare, and engaging in military action was never okay, no matter how many restraints you put on it.

I've come around to that position, philosophically if not practically.  Of course the Jews in Shushan had to defend themselves.  But in their doing so, there's nothing worth learning from, or even particularly worth emulating.  Professor Aryeh Cohen taught me that the Purim story is a graphic illustration of the "cycle of non-redemption" -- we do to them, whatever they were going to do to us.  We get the same decree issued, carry out (almost) the same slaughter, hang Haman on the very tree intended for Mordecai.  The classic reversals of Purim ("nehpach") are just another way of describing a cycle.  If there are lessons to be learned in Megillat Ester, they must be about how we break that cycle.

Indeed, the text provides a perfect redemptive antidote, building gradually through three successive attempts.  In 9:17, the Jews make the 14th of Adar a "yom mishteh v'simcha", a day of feasting and gladness.  Now, feasting, drinking and rejoicing may not do you much good when murdering hordes descend on you.  But when the cycles of history return you to power, it may lessen the thirst for revenge.  So we are required to this day, to participate in communal feasts on Purim afternoon.

But that's not enough.  In 9:19, Purim is not only a day of "simcha u'mishteh v'yom tov" (gladness, feasting, and festival), it is also a day for mishloach manot, sending goodies to one another.  That is, we shouldn't limit our community to those seated around our own table, but should extend those bonds as broadly as our means of transportation and the number of cookie sheets in our ovens can support.

But the teaching is not complete until the third attempt.  9:22 is the crowning verse of the entire Megillah:

כַּיָּמִים, אֲשֶׁר-נָחוּ בָהֶם הַיְּהוּדִים מֵאֹיְבֵיהֶם, וְהַחֹדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לָהֶם מִיָּגוֹן לְשִׂמְחָה, וּמֵאֵבֶל לְיוֹם טוֹב; לַעֲשׂוֹת אוֹתָם, יְמֵי מִשְׁתֶּה וְשִׂמְחָה, וּמִשְׁלֹחַ מָנוֹת אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ, וּמַתָּנוֹת לָאֶבְיֹנִים

These will be as the days when the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes, and the month was transformed for them -- from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning to festivity; that they should make them days of:

  1. "mishteh v'simcha" (feasting and gladness), and
  2. "mishloach manot" (sending goodies to one another), and 
  3. "matanot la-evyonim" (giving gifts to the poor).

The third and completing element -- gifts to the poor -- extends the bonds of community even further, to forge a shared identity that can withstand sectarian strife and even warfare.  And beyond that, to redress some of the root causes of conflict: poverty, illness, and need.

These are the lessons of Megillat Esther that break us out of the cycle of non-redemption, that compelled the rabbis of old to include this text in our cannon of study.  

And of course, these are the particular mitzvot of Purim (and hopefully many other days of the year) that we have accepted upon ourselves (9:27: "kimu v'kiblu").  Their reach extends beyond that of most mitzvot: a set of obligations on all Jews, in all lands, enduring throughout time -- even in the days of ha-Olam ha-Bah (the World that We Bring), might it arrive speedily and in our days.  Purim Same'ach!

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