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Parashat Tetzaveh 5780

March 6, 2020

Purim: When Israel truly accepted Torah
A D’var Torah for Parashat Tetzaveh
By Rabbi Irwin Huberman (’10)

One of the visual highlights of the regular Shabbat service occurs after we complete our weekly Torah reading.

Within the Asheknazi (European) tradition, the magbiah (the lifter) opens the Torah at least three columns wide, and raises it towards the heavens. The congregation responds by chanting, “And this is the Torah that Moses set before the people of Israel — upon the command of God, through Moses’ hand” (Deut. 4:44)

It is a beautiful tradition which acknowledges the Jewish people receiving Torah at Mount Sinai, more than three thousand years ago.

But as our Talmudic tradition teaches, receipt of Torah is one thing, accepting it is another.

The Talmud implies, that in the desert, barely three months after their liberation, the Israelites really had no choice. They were totally dependent on God.

Supplies of food and water were limited. They were at the mercy of the elements, and surrounding armies. So our rabbis pose the rhetorical question, “Did the acceptance of Torah under duress, amount to true acceptance?

They decided that the answer is “no.” Rather, they argue that the Jewish people only accepted Torah about a thousand years later, under the umbrella of the light-hearted festival of Purim, which we will celebrate beginning this Monday night.

Why Purim?

Understanding that the Israelites were vulnerable during their initial liberation from Egypt, Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama bar Hasa likens their situation to a nation standing under a large tub or kippah (Shabbat 88a).

Rabbi Avdimi recounts that, “the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial.’”

Rather than face the prospect of being pulverized by God, the Israelites accepted Torah.

But as our Sages ask, “Did this really constitute acceptance?” They argue that while receipt of Torah at Mount Sinai was significant, it was not the end of the process.

Rav Aha bar Ya’akov had his doubts, and points out a problem with the Mount Sinai account. “The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding.”

So when, asks the Talmud, did the Israelites truly accept Torah?

The sage Rava answers, “They again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahashverosh.” The Persian king is one of the key characters in the Book of Esther, read during the holiday of Purim.

It’s a fascinating teaching which establishes that the true connection between Jews and Torah occurred not at Mount Sinai, but rather many centuries later, in Persia, within a story which recounts the heroic acts of Esther and Mordechai as they combatted tyranny and antisemitism in their time.

And, as many Sages have noted, nowhere in the Book of Esther is God’s named mentioned.

Teacher and author, Slovie Jungreis-Wolff, wrote in her recently published piece in The Jewish Voice, titled When God is Hidden: The Meaning of Purim, that Purim provides us with “The message that whispers to us in the silence of the night:

‘Do not be afraid. Even if it feels as if I am so far away, hidden and concealed. I will never abandon you, My dear children.’”

Often within our lives, we call upon God to intervene and to protect us from travail. We reach out during periods of stress, ill health and apprehension. It may be argued that these are times, like the circumstance of the Jews in the desert, when we are most vulnerable.

But our tradition also reminds us of another way to interact with God. Where possible, we are called upon to carry forward God’s will through action.

At Mount Sinai, the Jews took possession of the Torah with the words, Na’aseh V’nishmah – “We will do and we will understand.” (Exodus 24:7)

The Midrash surrounding Nahshon ben Aminadav teaches that the Sea of Reeds only parted after Nahshon, the leader of the tribe of Judah, became the first to jump into the unknown waters (Mekhilta Beshalakh14:22; Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 42, and others).

Hence the connection with Purim.

For if we look beyond the traditional frolic, and the bedlam of costumes, noisemakers, sweets and beverage, we witness the story of two Jewish heroes, Esther and Mordechai, who stepped into uncharted waters, with God in their hearts, took on more formidable physical forces – and prevailed.

And that is why our Sages point to the time of Ahashverosh, as an example where the Jewish people called upon a concealed God, without directly calling for intervention.

And that, our Sages argue, is when the Jewish people truly accepted Torah.

There are times throughout our lives where God and Torah appear to be hidden. But by taking action, by understanding that beneath the seemingly random series of events which constitute our daily lives, God is with us, sometimes in full view, sometimes concealed.

Indeed, each one of us has a personal Megillah. Each one of us has a story – our own Torah to be written.

The special quality of Purim is contained within its capacity to bring forth the light, particularly during challenging times.

Indeed, God does not need to be there within full sight. Sometimes, God is contained within our faith that good will ultimately prevail over evil.

More significantly, as the story of Purim teaches us, out of the darkness, God can forever inspire us, through the light in our hearts, through our faith, and through our actions.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman (AJR 2010) is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a USCJ affiliated congregation located in Glen Cove, NY.