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Purim: The Last Laugh

There is a question that we can ask about Purim. Purim is such a happy time, a day filled with laughter and festivity, with jokes and good humor. The question is: What's so funny? If the reason for our celebration is simply to recall the deliverance that occurred, then we should be just as joyful on Pesach, Succot and Chanukah, all of which commemorate the redemption of the Jewish People. Yet none of these holidays are celebrated with the same high spirits as Purim. What's going on?

The famous talmudic sage, Rabbah, used to begin every lecture with a joke (so we will do the same):

During the Stalinist regime, a poor Jewish farmer was exiled to Siberia on charges of spying and espionage. In the middle of winter, his wife writes him a letter. "I have to plow our field to plant the potato crop, but the ox has died. What shall I do?"

Her husband writes back, "DON'T PLOW THAT FIELD! I've buried there an entire cache of rifles and hand- grenades."

Several days later, a truck-load of Russian soldiers descend upon the farm and furiously begin digging for the guns. Hours later, with nothing to show for it, they return to their truck and depart. The farmer's distraught wife writes to her husband, "The Russians were here, and they turned over the entire field from beginning to end."The farmer writes back, "Now you can plant the potatoes."

What exactly makes a joke funny? Every joke begins with a certain set of assumptions. It develops a line of thought, builds our expectations, then suddenly hits us with a punch-line that overthrows all our previous notions. The absurdity of a sudden juxtaposition of a strange set of ideas casts the preceding assumptions in a new light and makes us laugh. This is true of all jokes. They proceed in a certain direction, until the twist at the end. Judaism teaches that everything in the world has at its core a spiritual truth. What is the spiritual truth of a sense of humor?

The path of Torah is multi-dimensional. That is, there is no single reason for any practice or teaching. Rather, the Torah expresses itself on an infinite number of levels. It is perhaps the only document in the world that can be read and enjoyed by an eight year old, and an eighty year old; by the simplest child, or by the greatest genius. There are as many reasons for the mitzvos as there are facets of humanity: practical reasons, ethical reasons, rational reasons, symbolic reasons, aesthetic reasons. In a certain sense, each reason penetrates deeper and deeper into the heart of reality. The physical is the most outward expression of the being, the intellect is subtler and more recondite, aesthetic sensitivities perhaps even more so. However, at the heart of them all, in the most concealed recesses of the tradition, is the mystical aspect of the Torah. And at the heart of the mystical teachings lies a paradox. It is the paradox of G-d and creation.

One of the most important books of Kabbalah ever written, the magnum opus of Jewish mysticism, is the Etz Hayyim, the teachings of Rabbi Yitzhok Luria, the great Sixteenth Century Kabbalist. The book Otzrot Hayyim, a abridged version of the Etz Hayyim begins with these words. "When it arose in the simple divine will to emanate a creation, G-d withdrew His light to the sides, leaving an empty space." This is the concept of tzimtzum, withdrawal. Before creation, the universe could not exist in the overwhelming, transcendent Being of G-d, not until He made an empty space into which He could create. Nonetheless, there remains a paradox, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the great Chassidic master, summed it up as follows:

G-d, blessed be He, created the world because of His compassion. He desired to reveal His compassion, and if there was no creation, to whom could He reveal it? Therefore, He created the entire creation, from the beginning of Atzilus [the highest spiritual world], until the densest heart of physical matter, all in order to show His compassion. But when G-d wanted to create the world, there was no place to create it, for everything was Infinite Being. Therefore, He withdrew the light to the sides and by means of this contraction, He made an empty space. Within this empty space was brought into existence all time and measurement, the constituents of reality. This empty space was necessary for the creation of the world, for without it there was no place for creation. [However], this empty space is impossible to comprehend, except in the World to Come, because we must assert about it two opposite statements: it exists and it does not exist. The empty space came about through the tzimtzum, implying that G-d removed His Presence. Nonetheless, the truth is that G-d is certainly there, for nothing exists without His life-force. Therefore it is impossible to understand this empty space at all, not until the World to Come.

This central paradox of existence -- G-d's presence or absence in creation -- lies at the heart of all the mysteries in man's relationship to G-d. Primary among these is the paradox of free will and G-d's foreknowledge. The Torah adamantly affirms mankind's free will. Each individual can act precisely as he or she desires, choosing whether to draw close to G-d, or to distance himself from Him. Without the possibility of free will, there could be no system of reward and punishment, which is central to the Jewish world view. If everything were preordained, no one could be held accountable for anything they did. On the other hand, Judaism equally affirms the total omni- science and omnipresence of the Creator. G-d is not bound by time, but knows past, present and future simultaneously. But since everything is known to Him, how can human free will exist?

The mystery of the tzimtzum expresses itself as well in the paradox of unity and diversity. How can G-d's unity (manifest in the state prior to the tzimtzum) be reconciled by the obvious duality of creation (the post- tzimtzum state). It is at the root of the paradox of time and transcendence. Time is an obvious reality to us, yet it has no existence to G-d. There are many further examples of such paradoxes.

However, the mystery goes even deeper. It is not merely that the creation seems antithetical to Divinity, the opposites themselves are deeply interrelated and interpenetrative. Kabbalah teaches that G-d created the world in order to reveal His presence to creation. Rabbi Nachman defined this in terms of G-d's compassion. In Itself, this Presence is infinite. To make Itself accessible, It needed a vessel to receive It. A person may have an ocean of water, but without a cup to contain it, it is inaccessible. The tzimtzum, therefore, serves as a vessel to contain the revelation of G-d. Nevertheless, the nature of a vessel is the very opposite of the substance it contains. One is limitless, the other limits and defines. One is expansive, the other contractive. One's essential nature is to give, the other to receive. One reveals, the other conceals. Yet, without the vessel, there could be no revelation. This means to say that the tzimtzum, and all of its consequences, free will, duality, time, limitation, are none other than those very vessels in which transcendence, providence, unity and infinity will be revealed. It suggests that the ultimate, most perfect setting for transcendent revelation is immanence itself. This is a paradox impossible for the mind to grasp.

Kabbalah defines the unenlightened state of the human mind as mokhin d'katnus, literally, constricted consciousness. It means that our perception of reality is too limited, too focused on singular truths to grasp the entire picture. The more constricted the consciousness, the more overwhelming the limited sense of reality. A good example of this is a dream. In sleep, the consciousness is much more constricted than in the waking state. Thus, certain elements of reality seem much more binding. Time, for instance, is greatly exaggerated. Fifteen minutes can seem like years. When a person awakes, entering into a relatively higher state of consciousness, he realizes that the previous reality was illusory. To Tzaddikim, the enlightened masters of the Jewish tradition, seventy years of "real time" may also seem like only fifteen minutes, because their consciousness is operating on a different plane. Nonetheless, Judaism does not deny the validity of this world (unlike certain Eastern religions). The world is real, it is the necessary place for G-d's revelation. Only, the picture we see is not complete.

In a sense, mokhin d'katnus is the human correspondence of the tzimtzum of G-d's presence at the outset of creation. In both cases, G-d is concealed, whether to the individual or to the creation as a whole. Likewise, the tzimtzum could be called G-d's sleep. Of course, we cannot speak of sleep in regards to G-d. "He does not sleep, nor does He slumber, the guardian of Israel" (Psalms 121:4). To G-d, there is no contradiction between tzimtzum and Infinite Being. G-d is able to embrace both truths at once. "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, says the L-rd" (Isaiah 55:8). The concealment is from our side, alone. From our point of view, when G-d's presence is hidden, it appears that He is asleep. "Awake, why do You sleep, O G-d? Arouse Yourself, do not cast us off forever" (Psalms 44:24). Ultimately, it is a matter of perspective. When the mind is itself constricted, it can hold only one truth at a time. Were it able to expand beyond its limitations, it could perceive how both can be true at once.

The state of mind opposite mokhin d'katnus is mokhin d'gadlus, expanded con- sciousness. The entire path of Torah: prayer, study, mitzvos, all seek to elevate the individual to this state of mind. One then grasps the higher truths of reality, even though they may be paradoxical. The mind takes in the entire picture. We express this even in common parlance. A "narrow-minded" person is someone who can only see one point of view, but a "broad- minded" person can consider many opinions, even those that contradict his own. In fact, one of the truest indications of an authentic mystical experience is its paradoxical nature. The mind suddenly transcends its limitations to grasp two visions of reality at once.

However, as Rabbi Nachman stated in the quote above, this state of mind is impossible to totally grasp in this world. Although potentially, any individual can follow the path of Torah to its ultimate, transcendent goal, the reconciliation of G-d and creation will not be universally revealed until the World to Come. The proverbial End of Days, that begin with the coming of the Messiah and the ingathering of the exiles, and conclude with the resurrection of the dead. At that time, G-d's presence will be completely revealed, and a new reality will pervade existence, not other than what now exists, but different. Revelation will occur in terms of this world, yet reveal something totally beyond.

Rabbi Nachman discusses one of the amazing revelations that will occur in this final period of history. We will come to realize that all of life's suffering is actually a vessel for receiving the greatest blessings of G-d. Suffering, born out of Divine concealment, tzimtzum, will be experienced as a vessel for holding Divine light. The Talmud alludes to this idea in a discussion of the verse: "On that day, the L-rd will be One and His name One" (Zechariah 14:9). "Is G-d not One even now?" the Talmud asks. And it answers, "Now we say the blessing `Blessed are You, G-d, Who is good and does good' when good things happen, and the blessing `Blessed is the True Judge' when bad things happen. In the future, no matter what happens, we will say '. . . Who is good and does good'"

This means to say that when G-d's Oneness will be revealed, we will realize how everything in life deserves a positive blessing, unlike today, when happiness and sorrow affect us oppositely. This realization will extend even further, and we will realize that all the suffering and degradation that the Jewish People ever experienced throughout history was actually an expression of the kindness of G-d. And conversely, all the glory that seemed the property of those nations who sought to deny G-d's existence, will be seen to have been actually for our own good. This is a concept impossible for our present consciousness to grasp, how life's severest pains are actually our greatest good. It is one of the paradoxes that will be revealed in the future world.

Nonetheless, at certain times, for certain reasons, G-d draws from this future light to illuminate the present. This is what occurred during the miracle of Purim. To recap the Purim story, briefly: Seventy years have transpired since the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews are in exile in Persia, under the hand of King Ahashverosh, the ruler of the Middle East. The king throws a large banquet for all his subjects (actually, in honor of the captivity of the Jews). He summons his beautiful wife, Queen Vashti, to appear before him. She rudely refuses and he subsequently has her killed. After that, Esther, a Jewish exilee, is taken to the palace as the king's new wife. If the degradation of a Jewish girl abducted to the palace of a wicked despot is not enough, her ward, Mordechai, one of the leaders of the generation, abandons his place among the sages, to sit day and night in front of the king's gate in his concern over Esther. The king's vizier, the wicked Haman, is promoted. A personal vendetta against Mordechai develops, and he decides to visit his anger upon the entire Jewish people. A death sentence is issued against all the Jews in the King's provinces, and Haman builds a special gallows upon which to hang Mordechai. Things are going from bad to worse. However, on one fateful night, the king awakes from his sleep and learns that Mordechai had once saved his life. He grants him royal honors. Haman is killed. The decree is rescinded. And the Jews high-handedly defeat their enemies.

Everything in this story is a paradox. Each event that seemed bad for the Jews proved to be for their good. The royal banquet in celebration of Israel's exile provided the very means for Esther to enter the king's palace. The fact that Esther was abducted allowed her to bring about Haman's demise. The fact that Mordechai sat idly by the palace gate allowed him to overhear a conspiracy and save the king's life. Haman's rise to power was the very thing that produced his conflict with the Jews, and brought about his downfall. He was even hung on the very gallows he built for Mordechai, and all his wealth, that had made him so influential in the first place, was given to Esther. The very day appointed for the annihilation of the Jews was the day of their greatest victory over their enemies. It is the day on which we celebrate Purim. Above all, we see that everything that seemed to obscure G-d's presence, everything of ill-fate, and the worse of human intentions, was actually the very means by which G-d was manipulating history to bring about the redemption of the Jews. Everything began to change on "that night the king awoke from his sleep" (Esther 6:1). The king, says the Talmud, actually alludes to G-d, the King of kings. On that night, G-d awoke from the sleep of concealment, and began to reveal His presence in the world below.

This provides us with an answer to our original question: what's so funny about Purim? Purim is a model of paradox, and paradox lies at the heart of the sense of humor, as we originally discussed. Purim is a brief glimpse of what will eventually be in the World to Come. In fact, the Talmud states that in the future, all other Jewish holidays will be absolved, except for Purim. Like a classic joke, Purim demonstrates that all of our assumptions of reality can suddenly be overturned. It is the sudden juxtaposition of two opposites, which sheds a new light on the whole. Perhaps we can say that in the World to Come, the punch-line of history will be told, and the paradox between G-d and the world will be resolved. All the suffering that we ever experienced will be seen to have been for our own good, whether the machinations of a Middle Eastern tyrant, or the Russian army plowing our potato fields for us.

This is the spiritual energy of Purim, and even if we do not consciously feel it, our souls are aware of it. Thus our sages have commanded us to get drunk on Purim in order to attain a state of mind other than the normal, a consciousness more attuned to the illogic of the day, the mysterious juxtaposition of G-d and creation. Earlier we identified one of the marks of true mystical experience as paradox. The other identifying mark is joy. Anyone who has seen the holy old men and women of Jerusalem knows the joy they exude. Thus, the verse says of the ingathering of the exiles: "And the redeemed of the L-rd shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall depart" (Isaiah 51:11).

The revelation of G-d lies at the very heart of the sense of humor. Thus King David sang concerning the World to Come.

A Song of Ascents:
When the Eternal brings back the captivity of Zion,
we will have been like dreamers.
Then our mouths will be filled with laughter,
and or tongues with songs of joy.
Then will they say among the nations;
the Eternal has done great things for these.
The Eternal has done great things for us,
therefore we were glad.
Turn again our captivity, O G-d, as streams in the desert. They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.
He that goes along weeping, bearing his bag of seed,
shall surely return with rejoicing, bearing his sheaves."

Purim Practices

On Purim (this year March 12), the order of the day is to be happy. It is the happiness born of the realization that life is good, even when it doesn't always seem so on the surface (this is part of the meaning behind the costumes that the children wear. They teach us that behind the horrible masks can be a sweet, smiling face). One should contemplate how it is in G-d's power to turn over any situation for the good, at a moment's notice. 

The Megillah (the Book of Esther) is read twice on Purim, once by night, then again by day. It is recited in synagogue, as a proclamation of the miracle that occurred for us. Men, women, and even children old enough to understand are required to attend.

It is a mitzvah to partake of a Purim feast in celebration of the day. The meal begins late in the day of Purim. For those who have not done so yet, this is the time to get drunk. Primarily, one should drink wine, for the Sages have said, "When wine goes in, the secrets comes out." (In addition to this statement's simple meaning, it also alludes to the deeper secrets of creation that can be perceived on this day.)

To increase in the festivity of the day, and to generate love and unity among Jews, one should send a gift of food to someone else who is celebrating. The package should consist of at least two different portions that are ready to eat, for use at the Purim feast.

One should be especially generous in giving charity on Purim. The Talmud says that one should give something, even a nominal amount, to anyone who extends his hand. Beyond this, the Sages instituted that we give a sizeable amount (at least five dollars) to two different impoverished individuals. Most syna- gogues will have a special collection box towards this end, guaranteeing that one's money is given to the truly needy.

There are many details to these mitzvos, and we recommend you consult a comprehensive guide to Jewish Law, such as The Concise Guide to Jewish Law by Rabbi Louis Ganzfried.

This article was originally written for "A Still Small Voice." A correspondence course in Jewish Spirituality 

(C) Eliezer Shore, Bas Ayin

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