Torah Commentary: Purim- 'New Dawn' of Revolutionary Consciousness


1. Dawn of a New Age- The Book of Esther
I will admit that I’ve always had a certain hesitation when it came to Purim. It wasn’t that I was so influenced by Bible criticism or historical scholarship, it was my own sense that the Book of Esther, the focus of the holiday of Purim, read more like a novel than a book of prophecy. It is probably for this reason that if you ask many people which came first, Hanukka or Purim, they would say that Purim was later- there is something more modern about Purim and the Megilla than about the Hanukka story. The Hanukka story feels more biblical than does the Esther story for a number of reasons- it takes place in the land of Israel, there’s a Temple with sacrifices and ritual purity, but most of all, there’s a miracle at the core of the story, whereas with Purim, there is no miracle, it takes place in exile, the Jews are a persecuted minority, and a lot of political intrigue with all the attendant violence is involved. So, despite its being hundreds of years earlier, the Purim story feels more modern, more contemporary. More importantly, the book of Esther, the “megilla”, reads more like a novel than any other sacred Hebrew text, though it is included among the books of the “bible”. I would like to argue now that this novelistic quality, seemingly a detraction from the sanctity of the holiday, may be, in fact, literally, its redeeming quality.
This literary quality of the book of Esther is not a modern discovery; it is already a problematic in the Talmud. Recorded in BT Megila 7., is an argument as to whether the book of Esther is sacred enough to ritually impurify direct contact (the special state of holy books is preserved by necessitating ritual handwashing in any contact) as are other recognized books collected as Torah. Interestingly, it is exactly the novelistic qualities of the work that salvage its sacred status:

We have learned: R. Elazar states that “Esther” was written with the Divine Spirit, as it says “And Haman said in his heart”. Rabbi Akiva says that it was written with the Divine Spirit, as it says “And Esther found favor in all who looked upon her”…Shmuel says, I have the best argument- as the text states “the Jews accepted and took upon themselves”, meaning they kept above what they accepted below (Megila 7.)

All of these proofs of divine inspiration are based upon what is traditionally recognized as a literary technique, the imputation of what someone must have been thinking, what the reaction of characters must have been in a given situation. Rashi explains that the reaction of a critical reader to these passages could be “who says?” in which case either the book is a work of fiction or the information comes from a divine source of inspiration. What is critical to our argument is that one could better argue the sanctity of the text from its message, or the ritual practices described, but instead, the central argument for its sanctity are exactly the loci which a textual scholar would use to disparage the texts divinity and point to its literary nature (the presentation of internal thoughts of characters as plot development).
Of course, the Rabbis in claiming “divine inspiration” and sacred status for the book were not claiming that the book had been delivered by angels or in a revelation, for after all the text itself states, at the end of chapter 9, that this book was written by Esther in order to document the event and preserve the celebration inaugurated as a result. The Talmud and Midrashim actually have Esther and the Rabbis of the time debating whether this story should be “preserved” as a text (verses 31-32), while at the same time it is these verses proffered as support that the Megilla itself when used ritually needs to be written almost as though it were a Torah scroll, with certain types of thread necessary and use of sirtut, a way of making lines used in writing Torah scrolls. Aside from the ritual issues, these verses are also used by the Jerusalem Talmud (Megilla 1:5) to argue that the book of Esther has the same homiletical privilege as the Torah itself, being “as truth of Torah” and as such being an appropriate substrate for Midrashic explication! In summary, it would appear that it is exactly the most blatantly “literary” segments of the text that at the same time are chose to defend the texts sacred status both ritually and hermeneutically.
Is this perhaps intentional? Could there be a message in this making sacred of a seemingly literary work?
Blanchot suggests a link between literary creation and the sacred in his L’Espace Litteraire, (citations will be from Ann Smock’s translation “The Space of Literature”): the question to be answered is “what is art, and what can we say of literature?” Blanchot writes:

It seems that art was once the language of the gods; it seems, the gods having disappeared, that art remains the language in which their absence speaks…

Blanchot argues that while the original impetus, the place of “origin” of art, may have been a bringing to presence of a message beyond man, beyond mastery, but eventually that work was “ruinous for the gods”, in that the work itself becomes greater than the gods, the work becomes:

not Zeus any more, but statue… when the gods are overthrown, the temple does not disappear with them, but rather, begins to appear…it reveals itself by continuing to be what it was from the first only unknowingly: the abode of the gods’ absence…

However, despite the human attempt at seeing himself as a creator and master as a result of the recognition of his ability to produce poetry and literature, “the work is no less dangerous for man”:

It soon appears that the work of art is by no means mastered by mastery, that it has less to do with failure than success…In the work man speaks, but the work gives voice in man to what does not speak: to the unnamable, the inhuman, to what is devoid of truth, bereft of justice, without rights…

In this way, Blanchot answers Holderlin’s question: “what use are poets in time of distress?” and sums up his view of the space of literature:

To this question there can be no response. The poem is the answer’s absence. The poet is one, who through his sacrifice, keeps the question open in his work. At every time he lives the time of distress, and his time is always the empty time when what he must live is the double infidelity: that of men, that of gods…That is why the poem is solitude’s poverty. This solitude is a grasp of the future, but a powerless grasp: prophetic isolation which, before time, ever announces the beginning.

Thus, literature is a form of prophecy that comes not from a transcendent source but from deep within human suffering, a hidden prophecy meant to bring about an end to tragedy, to evoke compassion and produce justice and truth from a recognition of its absence, and as such to produce a “‘now’ of dawn”.
We will see that a similar approach is taken to the book of Esther, even down to the analogy with a new dawn. There are multiple Midrashic readings linking the book of Esther with Psalm 22, which is begins as a hymn for ayelet hashachar, usually translated as ‘early dawn’. In the earlier Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 8:1), the link is that redemption occurs, like the early dawn, in discrete stages, starting slowly and rapidly increasing in illumination, much like in the book of Esther, which starts off dark, then episodically the situation becomes brighter until there is mass jubilation at the end. However, this same reading is handled very differently in the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 29.), which states:

Why is Esther likened to the dawn? Just as the dawn is the end of night, so is Esther the end of miracles…

This is certainly an odd teaching, for while at first glance the metaphor makes sense (end= end), but wouldn’t one expect that the end of prophecy would be more appropriately linked to the end of day? Dawn is usually a positive metaphor, the beginning of a bright, shining, new day, a step forward, whereas one would think of the loss of prophecy as the beginning of a long journey into night and darkness!
R. Tzadok HaCohen notes several midrashim which link the Purim story to the receiving of the Torah at Sinai, the most explicit being in BT Shabbat 88., which states that there was a second (and greater!) acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people at the time of Esther. There is another odd talmudic midrash in the Talmud, Hulin 139: which asks “where is Moses mentioned in the Torah?” and then asks for biblical texts which hint at Haman and Esther, with the proof text for Esther being “I will hide and conceal myself” (v’anochi haster astir) a statement that God will seem unreachable and remote during times of distress which in the original sounds like the name Esther (astir-esther).
This is an odd midrash for several reasons (why Moses should need a prooftext, as Moses is mentioned quite frequently in the Torah, and why should the answer given be a text dealing with the Flood episode? We discuss this teaching at length in our essay on Perashat Noach).  Rav Tzadok Hacohen suggests that the Talmudic text in Hulin is intentionally linking Moses to the characters in the book of Esther, much like the Talmud in Shabbat 88. in order to suggest a link between Sinai and the book of Esther.
What, then, is the connection between Sinai and Esther? In traditional Jewish throught, there are two distinct parallel aspects to Torah law, referred to as the “Written Law” and the “Oral Law”. While the Written Law, the commandments written in the Torah, are a reflection of God’s will for the world, it is the Oral Law, that is, the way in which the written laws of the Torah were interpreted by the ensuing generations, which acts as the vehicle for spirituality to enter history. Because the Oral Law is transformative, that is, it adapts the written code to a living experience, it is also ultimately redemptive.  This tradition and process of Oral Law begins with Esther, which is the first book to assume God’s presence in mundane everyday affairs of state, and Esther herself as the first “Rabbi” to institutes new rituals (gift giving and alms for the poor in commemoration of this miracle) and to institute a new holiday, not mentioned in the Torah, which commemorates the miraculous within the historical.
It is this book of Esther, which serves as the transition point between Written Law and Oral Law, and this explains the talmudic dictum that even if the other holidays disappear, Purim will still survive- for it is the spirit of redemption which is possible from within the people, even when it appears that there is no guidance from above, that cannot be suppressed.
The Or Hameir supports this idead textually, he understands Esther’s request at the end of the Megilla that the work be “written for the generations” means she understands that her writings will serve as a source for inspiration for future generations. The Maor V’Shemesh goes further,  that the phrase means that this text in one aspect parallels the earlier prophetic works, in that it should qualify for the infinite readings possible of the actual prophetic books of the bible.
I would argue that it is specifically the literary element of the work that makes this possible. The “new dawn” made possible by Esther, is that the work of the artist, in the sensitive encounter with tragedy, can serve as an equal catalyst to liberation and improvement of society as can a direct message from the divine realms. Prophecy is no longer necessary to expose tyranny, the individual human experience alone is adequate to evoke a desire for change, call for freedom for all people from repression. Transformations of human consciousness can be achieved with a poem, a song, a novel. It is for this reason that book continues to feel contemporary even after a thousand years, for it is a process within the reach of any one of us who is moved by the confrontation with the endless Amaleks, those destroyers of society that appear in every generation and every culture.
The Book of Esther suggests that there is no better way to end the period of prophecy than with the passage of responsibility from the supernatural world to the hearts of those with the sensitivity to make the world a better place.
2. until one can not differentiate between good and evil

No image of torture? I want to proceed as Raphael did and never paint another image of torture. There are enough sublime things so that one does not have to look for the sublime where it dwells in sisterly association with cruelty; and my ambition also could never find satisfaction if I became a sublime assistant at torture…. Nietzsche

Purim is an unusual holiday in the Jewish calendar in that, as opposed to the solemnity of most holidays, it is one which phenomenologically appears as one of unbridled levity. Children and adults dress in costumes, one is meant to drink until “Blessed be Mordechai” is confused with “Cursed be the evil Haman”, a large meal is held which historically was accompanied by itinerant comic and satirical theater performances.  The message is that events in the world are not as they appear at first glance, even when it appears that all is lost, salvation is just around the corner, or lurking beneath the surface. Purim is a carnival of redemptive possibility.
Here is the story of the Book of Esther:  an evil minister of the Persian king, Haman, attempts to get back at another courtier, Mordechai, who Haman feels has ‘dissed’ him. Instead of taking on Mordechai directly, he spends a lot of his own money bribing the king to wipe out Mordechai’s entire people, the people later to be known as the Jews. This decree is accepted by the Persian king, until it is revealed that his beloved Queen is also an “MOT” (member of the tribe, in Jewish campus slang), and instead the king hangs Haman and his clan, allows the Jews to defend themselves from attackers, and gives Mordechai a good government position. Hence the levity surrounding the holiday.
The Rabbis, however, while institutionalizing the Bakhtinian-release nature of Purim, also recognized the darker aspects of the story. While in this particular instance the story has a happy ending, the underlying possibility of a situation of mass murder of innocents is a terrifying one.
The Talmud takes this event very seriously, equating the response of the saved people of this deliverance to that of the revelation at Sinai! According to the Talmud (BT Shabb. 88.), at Sinai, it appeared as if God held the mountain over the people of Israel and gave them the Torah under compulsion, whereas at the time of Mordechai and Esther, the people re-accepted the Torah, but this time, out of love. One might say that Sinai was a heteronymous acceptance, whereas Purim was an autonomous one, so in a sense the event of Purim is even greater than the central event of the giving of the Torah at Sinai!
To reinforce this darker side of Purim, the holiday is always preceded by a Sabbath Torah reading in which the portion of the Torah dealing with the attack by the Amalekite tribesmen upon the newly freed slaves, is recounted. We are told that this desert tribe targeted the weakest flank of the Israelite camp, and that this fierce attack was unprovoked; in fact, the text states, the Amalekites essentially stumbled upon the freed Hebrews, and decided to attack them on the spur of the moment. Thus the Amalekites became synonymous with the unlimited capacity for human savagery, and the command, repeated twice in the Torah, is to remember this savage attack, and to ‘blot out their memory’.
The Amalek attack is linked to Purim in that Haman is described as an Amalekite in descent. R. Zadok HaCohen of Lublin points out a deeper relationship to the Amalekite idea as suggested by the name of this holiday, Purim, which is derived comes from the textual account of a lottery, a pur, that Haman cast in order to decide when he should kill all those people –random violence being a marker of Amalekite savagery.
It is important to note, that while perhaps in antiquity there were skirmishes with actual Amalekites (such as the one that cost King Saul his throne), in traditional Jewish discourse, the term “Amalek” became a metaphor for all that is bad in the world without a specific tribal reference (interestingly, the rabbinic lawyers credit the Arab invasions of the seventh century with eradicating the traces of the ancient tribes mentioned in the bible); in mystical thought the term is a cipher for the evil itself.
Among the Hasidic masters, recognizing the use of singular rather than plural commands in connection with the commands to remember and eradicate Amalek, Amalek came to mean the “evil inclination,” that is, the flawed aspects within our personalities that requires transformation and sublation. R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, in his Pri Haaretz, notes several oddities in the text of the commandment and comes up with a reading that presages that of Freud regarding melancholia and fetishism, as we shall see. The Pri Haaretz notes that a commandment to remember is paradoxical, forgetfulness tends to be viewed as an accidental, not an active process. Furthermore, the remembrance is explained as being necessary in ‘erasing the memory of Amalek’. If God had wanted Amalek’s memory to be erased, why mention them at all? Without a textual mention to keep their memory alive, would they not be forgotten like so many other tribes and civilizations that left behind no trace? So what is this command to “remember to forget” trying to teach us?
Remembering to forget sounds like a response to melancholy and mourning. In particular, I am reminded of Giorgio Agamben’s presentation of Freud’s understanding of the concept of melancholy:

…In melancholy, the object is neither appropriated nor lost, but both possessed and lost at the same time…

Agamben quotes Freud, whereby the melancholic ego, unable to let go of the lost object, withdraws from reality, and invests its energy into creating ‘phantasms of desire’, which substitute a superior reality in the place of actual reality. In essence, according to Agamben, the relationship of the ego to the ‘phantasms of desire’ created during melancholy and loss constitutes the basis of all cultural creation and progress:

No longer a phantasm, and not yet a sign, the unreal object of melancholy introjection opens a space that is neither the hallucinated oneiric scene of the phantasms nor the indifferent world of natural objects. In this intermediate epiphanic state, located in the no-man’s-land between narcissistic self-love and external object-choice, the creations of human culture will be situated one day…

Agamben sees this no-man’s land, this intermediate state of incompleteness and desire for better experiences than those in reality, as being the motivating factor behind artistic development, for example, here is Paul Celan:

…I speak, yes, of the poetry that does not exist!

Absolute poetry, – no certainly it does not exist, it cannot exist!

But it does exist, yes, in every existing poem, it exists in every poem without pretense, this question that cannot be evaded, this unheard-of pretense…

While the experience of lack, absence, and deficiency can bring about the sad neuroses of melancholy, if redirected and properly channeled, this same emotion is the birth of creativity and the creation of a better or more beautiful world in art, literature and ultimately in reality . Perhaps, this moment is that ‘thing’ that exists at the interface of all languages according to Walter Benjamin, that vision within the creation of literature that the translator senses and attempts to recreate in other languages, because it is universal and transcendent of the specifics of any one culture.
Let us return to the Pri Haaretz. His concern is with the role of non-forgetting in the process of eradicating the bad in the world. He connects the role of ‘non-forgetting’ to the to the role of  ‘non-understanding’ as described in the Talmudic midrash, BT Rosh Hashana 21: which states that Moshe achieved 49 of the levels of Consciousness (the 49 shaarei binah), but not the 50th. Why could not the greatest of prophets not achieve this understanding, and if so, what kind of “understanding’ is it? He answers that  the 50th level of understanding is – the ‘non-comprehensible’. The highest state is the non-comprehendable, which signifies the lacuna beyond our current knowledge, that sense of the beyond which drives the will towards understanding more, the desire for further understanding,  that paves the way for future breakthroughs in consciousness.
This non-forgetting negative memory, this phantasm, this non-comprehendible which drives us to more comprehending, is the response to suffering in our world, because it is the place  (in the kabbalistic language used by the Pri Haaretz) where ‘evil’ cannot penetrate, as it is a pure drive for the good, for positive transformation, for the completeness of consciousness. Concepts at this level of understanding are notoriously subject to critique, parody, and ultimately subversion. Even striving for the most profound mystical knowledge can be mocked (hear the one about the Zen monk who asked the hot dog vendor to make him one with everything?) but despite that, the awe and wonder which drive the imagining of a better, more beautiful existence, are always just out of reach and thus unviolable.
The spiritual journey is thus, always greater and purer than that which is actually found. The persistent “memory,” the not-forgetting of the suffering and inadequacies of the current reality, the self-awareness of personal and relational failings for which there is always room for improvement, this is what is meant by the “remember to forget Amalek” in the world and in our selves, the drive towards personal and global rectification.
This state of being beyond the limits of the ordinary state of conscious understanding  underlies the celebration of Purim, according to the Sefat Emet. He reads the Talmudic adage that “one must drink on Purim until one reaches the state where one knows not between Blessed be Mordechai and Cursed be Haman” as suggesting, not the not knowing of mundane inebriation, but rather a state beyond “knowing”- the joy of the holiday leads to a spiritual high, which enables us to reach, even briefly,  that state beyond the ‘tree of good and bad’, (where traditionally human consciousness became limited as a result of sin)  that place beyond sin beyond good and evil- that place of unity, of oneness, where there is no duality, no evil, no lack, no corruption, no war, no torture, no suffering. On Purim, which commemorates a rare victory of the persecuted over malevolent powers, through “redemptive memory” to use Walter Benjamin’s term, we can visualize, even for a drunken moment,  a world in which there is no more war,  no more suffering.
A central theme of Purim, is the proper response to hate speech. Haman pitches his genocide to the king by libeling the Jews as dangerous because they are widely dispersed throughout the kingdom, and thus a threat (an experience felt by many expatriate populations through history). Of course, the reason the Jewish community was spread out was because their homeland had been conquered by the Assyrians in the recent past and they were driven forcibly into exile, but put in this light, the people’s suffering is made to appear sinister and threatening.
What then, is the proper response to hate speech? A model for response is presented by the Kedushat Levi. His message for Purim was built upon the Midrash linking Sinai to the Purim episode which reflected a “reacceptance of the Torah” as a result of the deliverance from the evil Haman. Generally, that midrash isunderstood as implying that God, so to speak, forced the Torah upon the people at Sinai violently (by holding the mountain over the people and threatening to destroy them if they don’t accept the Torah), whereas the people re-accepted the Torah a second time, willingly, after the fall of Haman. (There is an important essay by Levinas in his Talmudic Discourses entitled “the temptation of temptation” about the ‘violence’ of the initial event being a lesson about commitment to truth ).
The Kedushat Levi, R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditschev, offers an alternative reading of this teaching. The phrase used in the Talmud is kafa aleihem har k’gigit, which literally means that God lifted the mountain over their heads like an inverted plate, threatening to drop Mt. Sinai and burying them there if the people reject the Ten Commandments. The Kedushat Levi explains that it was not the mountain held over them, but in an act of midrashic metonymy the word har, mountain, in plural  harim, mountains, can be revocalized as horim, meaning parents or ancestors. In this reading, the Israelites recently redeemed from slavery, who still viewed themselves at the low level of slaves were raised up in their own minds to the level of their illustrious ancestors, and in that state of mind received the Torah. In other words, they weren’t threatened with violence at Sinai, as in the literal meaning of the midrash, but instead, were raised up to a higher consciousness of self-imagination (a revolutionary consciousness vs an enslaved mentality), and in that elevated state were able to become a people with a mission.
The challenge of history is that revolutionary consciousness is difficult to maintain over generations, especially when this consciousness was not deeply engrained within the people, and come difficult and challenging times, the people lose hope (in fact, as the Kedushat Levi points out, immediately after Sinai the people fell from this lofty state and sinned with the calf reminiscent of their slave days). At the time of Esther, their ability to overcome hate speech and oppression came from within the people, not as a gift from above, as in Sinai, but from within the people themselves, from a grass-roots community movement to transcend the objectification of hate speech. For this reason, the rabbis closed the corpus of bible text, of written law, with Esther;  from this point on, the Oral Law, the interpretive possibilities that emerge from within the challenges of human life, becomes the route to improving society, an equal (or perhaps superior) partner to divine text given from outside human experience.
Thus,  our contemporary responses to the celebration of  Purim should be: to adhere to our active non-forgetting approach to the eradication of hate of any form, a “redemptive memory” of the possibility of a better world, a “phantasm” which guides our dreams to a world beyond hate speech and oppression,  to a world of  ad lo yada, in which  “we no longer have the experience” of hate and sorrow.
Let us drink to that kind of world! Happy Purim to everyone!

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