Purim in prison: once again, we head north to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility to celebrate Purim and read Megilat Esther with the women there. When we enter, we’re informed that there is a package for ‘us’: the New York Board of Rabbis generously and so timely send a box of mishloach manot for the inmates. But the mitzvah is to give mishloach manot, not receive! What shall we do?? After the fun megillah reading (somehow, we are “more free” in prison to give it our all), and even some singing and dancing, we each take one package. This one is now “mine”. While the water is heating in the kettle, we walk around the room handing it to one another. We exchange them again and again in utmost seriousness: “please, take this, and have a very happy Purim; no, no, I want you to have it. This is for you”. Then we sit to share Torah, sipping coffee and munching on hamantashen. For a few moments, the whole world blurs. There is only this one room, and this group of women and a magical story of hope and a brighter tomorrow.
Purim & KiPurim; Esther & Moshe
On Yom Kippur we recite the 13 attributes of G-d; the same attributes which originally appear in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, which is usually read right near Purim (Exodus 34:6-7):
ו וַיַּעֲבֹר ה’ עַל-פָּנָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, ה’ ה’, אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן–אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת. 6 And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed: ‘The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth;
ז נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים, נֹשֵׂא עָוֺן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה; וְנַקֵּה, לֹא יְנַקֶּה–פֹּקֵד עֲוֺן אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים וְעַל-בְּנֵי בָנִים, עַל-שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל-רִבֵּעִים. 7 keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation.’
Are there exactly “13”? What exactly do we count? Does it matter? Does G-d really have only “13 attributes” and?? No more??
The numerical value of 13 is equal to – אהבה – ahava – Love, and אחד – echad – One (as at the end of the Shma). The Oneness has many aspects, but it is, ultimately, One.
There is a danger in defining G-d in “positive terms”, what G-d is, as if there are things that G-d is not. That’s where the Purim story comes in, a whole Biblical book without G-d. Or perhaps, where G-d is everywhere that there is no need to set limits.
Haman casts “lots”, goralot, to determine the Jews’ destiny. It seems alien to us: deciding things with “lots”? but that’s what Aaron, the high priest does – on Yom Kippur.
Each holiday in our calendar is connected to a Biblical hero: Pesach – Abraham; Shavuot – Isaac etc. There are hints to Hanukkah is the work of the high priest lighting the menorah. But what about Purim? Purim is Moses’ holiday. And some of the parallels are in this week’s reading, when we read about the fallout of the Golden Calf, otherwise known as “elohei masecha”, a “masked” G-d, or Moses himself putting on a “covering” to hide his shining face (revealing himself in that great effort to hide…).
Esther & Moshe: both spent significant time in a palace, in a foreign land; both initially refuse to take the task they are called on, and even once they do, don’t reveal their ancestry. They are leaders outside of the Land of Israel, and both watched by an older relative: Mordechai “patrolling” outside the palace, just like Miriam who watches Moshe floating on the river.
There is a complicated story about Moses traveling into the future, and seeing Rabbi Akiva’s great learning as well as tragic death. When he asks about it, Hashem says, seemingly roughly, “Hush, this is how I see it”. Esther too, deals with silence. Her all survival depends initially, not on what she does or says, but on being quiet, and not revealing who she really is. But then there is time to speak, just like for Moses, for whom speech is especially difficult.
There is a time for silence and a time for speech. Some things can be learned through silence that can never be perceived through words. Purim is the noisiest holiday we have, and yet, the important layers are all underneath. Moses wrote the whole Torah, and yet, following the Golden Calf incidence in this week’s reading, he asks G-d to “blot me out of Your book which You write” (Exodus 32:32).
Purim is over, but the play of light and shadows continues.