“…the same days on which Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy.”
Today is the fast of Esther, preparing us for Purim. We are invited into the narrative world of ancient Persia, where we find that the book of Esther is a text of extremes. The king goes from extreme happiness to dejection to anger. The empire was 127 provinces. The post containing the king’s various edicts had to be translated into every language in the kingdom. The story opens with a party that lasted for 187 days. The women who competed for the king’s favor dipped themselves in spa treatments for a year. The declaration of a winner stimulated a tax cut only to be met by a tax hike in the last chapter. Esther summoned her maidens and the people to fast for 3 days. I can barely fast for one. This is not a story of moderation.
This ancient tale took us from the neutrality of assimilation to the victimhood of obliteration to the happiness of unexpected triumph. If you follow our roller coaster of fate and the story’s emotional modulations, you find yourself exhausted by chapter ten. Arguably there is no other story in the Bible that throws us from one set of emotions to their opposite in the span of a few verses. Why employ this literary technique?
To answer this question, we turn to the Torah of Rabbi David Hartman, an intellectual Jewish giant who passed away last week. We will study his teachings as a way of honoring his memory and preserving his legacy. In his article, "The Joy of Torah," he asks if happiness is a desideratum and frames it with the Talmudic statement: "Commandments were not given for your enjoyment (BT Rosh Hashana 28a). With this kind of attitude, commandments become a weight and a burden to uplift us but not tools to bring us greater joy.
Rabbi Hartman takes a different view, one that connects responsibility with human dignity and possibility:
In receiving mitzvot, we experience joy in knowing that God accepts human beings in their limitations and believes in their capacities to shoulder responsibility...Divine acceptance empowers human acceptance in the form of our serving God with joy. We manifest our love for God by performing the commandments with joy - that is, for their own sake, and not as a means to have God gratify our needs. When I sense God's love, I realize that the reward for doing a mitzva is the mitzva itself (Ethics of the Fathers 4:2).
In addition to the intellectual joys of scholarship, Rabbi Hartman believes that being a “commanded person before God” offers the joy of knowing that God believes in our capacity to achieve greatness. We do not give responsibilities to those who cannot handle them. By demanding that we aspire and inspire others through kindness and compassion, prayer and study, we achieve the joy that comes with virtue.
The rabbis of the Talmud believed that Purim was a time when Jews accepted the authority of the oral law, a package of mitzvot and demands. But even a literal reading of the text suggests that as Jews became stronger in their expression of Jewish identity, they stabilized their own position in the kingdom. Immediate joy came from the relief of being able to protect themselves and win in battle. Long-term joy came from achieving stability and influence in the kingdom.
It is hard to appreciate and experience true joy without the contrast to sorrow. Fasting yields to feasting. Mourning to joy. It’s the Jewish way. As the saying, “All is good in the end. If it is not good, it is not the end.”
Shabbat Shalom and a Joyous Purim