Purim: accepting the highest Torah
February 16, 2009
You may remember that I'm taking a class called Moadim l'Simcha ("seasons of rejoicing"), a class in the Hasidic sacred year. We're studying the round of the year through the prism of Hasidic texts, beginning with where we are now in the year, e.g. the lead-up to Purim. In last night's class, we read a few short texts by the Sefat Emet, a.k.a. Reb Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter. These are texts about the deep spiritual teachings of the holiday of Purim -- which is not historically a holiday in which I find a lot of resonance, so it's been fascinating for me to dip into these Hasidic teachings which uncover some really beautiful stuff here.
I liked our first text so much I thought I'd share it with y'all. Here's one paragraph from the Sefat Emet on Purim; the italicized material is translation, the plaintext is my own commentary. Full disclosure: many of y'all may find this a bit, hm, esoteric? :-) But I think it's really lovely, and it's giving me a whole new perspective on a holiday I've never liked all that much, so -- if the notion of unpacking a dense paragraph of Hasidic prose-poetry about Purim appeals to you, read on.
We read in the Gemara: "Raba said, it is the duty of a man to mellow himself on Purim until he cannot tell the difference [between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai']." (Megillah 7b)
One thing which is lost in translation is that the word I'm rendering as "mellow," לבסומי/lib'sumei, is related to בסמים/b'samim, spices, as in the spices we savor at havdalah to keep our souls intact as Shabbat departs. So while it seems initially that the Gemara is talking about the obligation to drink until one can't tell the difference between the good guy and the bad guy in this story, a discerning reader may suspect that there may be something else going on here.
I've heard words to this effect from the holy mouth of my grandfather, my teacher -- that one must ascend high above the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
His grandfather taught him that this notion of becoming mellowed (or, one might say, spiced or perfumed) is really about ascending to a place above our constructs of good and evil. We're not just talking about getting wasted; we're talking about a kind of mystical ascent to a new level of understanding.
It's written, 'a tall tree of fifty cubits;' these are the rungs, the gates of impurity. There are 49 facets of impurity, etc.
The quote about the tall tree is a reference to the scroll of Esther, where numerous references are made to the gallows erected by Haman. Fifty feet high, it was meant for Mordechai. (Remember that in the end, it was Haman himself who swung there -- just one of the many inversions in this tale.) Notice that a moment ago, we were talking about ascending above the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; now we're talking about a "tree" -- really a gallows -- whose fifty cubits each represent a level or rung of ascent. It's almost poetry, the way words and ideas are woven together.
The notion that there are 49 "facets" or "aspects" or "gates" of impurity is a Talmudic understanding. But that's only half of the thought; here comes the other half.
For the strength of Amalek can be found on all of the rungs/levels. But in truth, the fiftieth gate is the gate of holiness. There, one no longer finds two paths. It's all good.
Amalek is the name given to the tribe which attacked the Israelites from behind during the Exodus from Egypt. The name becomes a symbol for all the evil of the world; Haman, who sought to destroy the Jews of Persia in the story of Esther, is considered to be of the tribe of Amalek. The Sefat Emet is arguing that Amalek's strength is found on every level of spiritual understanding except the top one, which is the level of holiness. Maybe he's saying that Amalek exists in some form in all of us, except for those who are at the very holiest level of spiritual understanding.
When one reaches the fiftieth gate, or level, or rung -- at the very top -- one no longer finds binarisms. This is, as he said before, above the top of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When one reaches the pinnacle of spiritual understanding, everything is good.
This is the root of unity. And regarding this it is written, "When Moshe lifted his hands" to the fiftieth gate, which is Torah.
This spiritual understanding which transcends binarisms is the root of true unity with God. And, the Sefat Emet says, this is what was going on when Moshe lifted his hands. What's he talking about there? The story of Amalek's attack of the Israelites: Moshe raised his hands, and as long as he held his hands up, the Israelites were able to rout the enemy. There's something about Moshe reaching upwards which represents his deep connection with the fiftieth gate or rung of spiritual understanding, which is the Torah.
The strength of Moshe, our teacher, peace be upon him, is that he was an agent of Torah; in this lay the downfall of Amalek.
A deep connection with Torah is what enables us to defeat wickedness.
And it is written: "Thus on Purim they accepted the Torah, etc."
The Sefat Emet is referring here to a story from the Talmud, found in Shabbat 88a. The story of the acceptance of the Torah at Sinai begins with an assertion that the Israelites stood at the base of the mountain, which the Talmud creatively re-reads to say that we stood beneath the mountain. R' Abdimi bar Chama says, "This teaches us that the Holy Blessed One overturned the mountain above them like an inverted cask, and said to them, 'if you accept the Torah, that's good, and if you don't, this will be your grave!'" In other words -- what if the initial acceptance of the Torah was under duress?
But Rava finds a way to read things differently. "Even if that is so," he says, "they re-accepted the Torah in the days of Achashverosh, for it is written, [the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them, etc." This is a reference to a line from the Scroll of Esther: "The Jews received it upon themselves, and it will never pass from them." The Esther passage is talking about the establishment of the festival of Purim, so this is the Talmud's creative re-reading of the Esther quotation to support a creative re-reading of the line from Exodus about the revelation at Sinai. (Still with me?) The root קבל, which means "receiving," is the hyperlink between the receiving of Torah at Sinai, and the Jews receiving upon themselves another eternal injunction (to observe the festival of Purim.)
So: we've gone from the assertion that Moshe's strength lay in his connection to Torah, to the assertion that it was on Purim that the Israelites truly accepted the Torah. Moshe facilitated the initial revelation of Torah at Sinai, but there was some other level or layer of Torah which wasn't truly received until the Purim story unfolded (and which we now continue to receive when we delve deep into Purim with the appropriate consciousness.)
This is the revelation of the Tree of Life. And that's the real meaning of "until one can't tell the difference between cursed [be Haman and blessed be Mordechai]." For there are no receptors there for the 'other side.'
This is what it means to say that the Jews accepted the Torah for real at Purim: we accepted the deepest Torah, the highest Torah, the Torah in which there is no longer a distinction between the "good guys" and the "bad guys" because to God on high it's all one. At this level of spiritual elevation, there's nothing which the sitra achra, the "other side" -- in a word, evil -- can grasp. Once you get to this high place, evil has fallen away. This is the point at which we're connecting not with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (which presumes binaries) but rather the Tree of Life.
And this is the root of unity, as it is written: "Perfumed -- these are the scents of spices which filled the world at the [time of the giving of the] ten commandments."
It is said that at the moment of the theophany at Sinai, all creation was instantly perfumed with the scent of spices. Spices, for the kabbalists (and for their spiritual descendants the Hasidim), are intimately linked with Shekhinah, the immanent presence of God. When the ten commandments were given, creation became redolent with holy fragrance.
And the word I'm rendering here as "perfumed" is the same word which appeared in our initial Gemara text which said that everyone must become mellowed (or perfumed) on Purim until he can't tell the difference etc. So the idea of becoming perfumed relates back to the perfume which filled creation when Torah was first revealed.
And my grandfather and teacher, of blessed memory, said that this was the secret of the spices of 'mar dror' [flowing myrrh], which is translated into Aramaic as 'marei d'chi' [pure spices.] And Mordechai [there's a pun here between marei d'chi and Mordechai -- same letters, same sounds] is an illumination of Moshe our teacher, peace be upon him, and a root of the Torah.
"The spices of flowing myrrh" is a reference to Exodus 30:23, a passage about anointing the priests for service with myrrh and cinnamon. The Hebrew mar dror (flowing myrrh) is rendered in Aramaic as marei d'chi, which is here punned into Mordechai, and Mordechai -- the hero of the Purim story -- is understood to be deeply connected with the high Torah which Moshe gave over; his actions allow Moshe's light to continue shining into creation.
That's the end of the paragraph of text. What blows me away is first of all the facility with quotations, the wordplay and punnery; I'm always amazed by the richness of these texts, how words become hyperlinks connecting one idea with another. But beyond that, I love the way he's taken a line I've heard for years (that on Purim we're supposed to get so drunk we can't tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman -- which is, oy, the kind of teaching that makes me wince; I've never been very good at bacchanalia) and turned it into a teaching how Purim calls us to spiritually connect ourselves with the spice of revelation in order to rise to a level of spiritual discernment where binaries cease to exist because everything is Go(o)d.
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