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Sunday, October 4, 2015

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A prayerful Purim

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This year, the holiday of Purim comes at the same time that we begin reading the book of Leviticus. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, since our celebration of Purim emphasizes the topsy-turvy nature of the holiday, and Leviticus begins with the description of the details involved in ritual sacrifice.

 On the one hand, the strangeness of Shushan and the foreignness of sacrifice almost line up. On the other hand, one text almost speaks of a loss of reference points and the resulting abandon of discipline, while Leviticus emphasizes the strictness of detail and discipline.

Yet these two descriptions, Purim and sacrificial law, teach us something important about ritual. Within the scroll of Esther, there is no mention of God’s name. The trials and tribulations of the Jewish people in ancient Persia are recounted to us as if they dealt with history alone, with no appeal to God and no help from above. There is a moment in the text when Esther and all the Jewish people fast. We assume this fasting is a sign of repentance and spirituality, a turning toward God, but we are left with that assumption unconfirmed, as the text never relates to it in those terms. There is never a prayer uttered, and there’s never a moment of beseeching the Divine.

The other side of the spectrum occurs in the book of Leviticus, when the opening statements describe how one is to bring a sacrifice, which animal to bring and what the kohen should do with the various body parts. If an appendage is not placed on the altar properly, not facing the right direction or not washed properly, the sacrifice is invalid – regardless of the intent of the person. It is communication with God that attends to detail in a way that seems foreign to a modern reader.

The two books are so vastly different in their approaches that one can only question which model reflects the Jewish one. Perhaps we are to solve all our problems on our own and never appeal to God, or perhaps we are to appeal to God with every detail in question and await direction. Interestingly, we don’t decide the question, since the importance is not in the answer, but in the question itself.

These two texts do not describe two opposing models, but two defining ones. Whether or not a Jewish person believes they are on their own in dealing with everything without appealing to God, in reality they are involved with God, since they are dealing with their lives from within a Jewish reality. Choosing to fast is an expression of soulful communication, while not turning to God in an overt way is still part of a spiritual relationship. This defines one side of a Jewish engagement with God.

The other side is defined by a relationship that cements itself in attention to detail and particularity. The Leviticus relationship is as real as the Esther relationship. One reflects a more hidden and generalized spirituality, while the other reflects a more overt and detailed one. They are both equally true.

The choice between Esther and Leviticus is not made within the model but within the person. Midrash Tehillim states that the person whose prayer is answered is the one who “lifts the hands with their heart in them.” Only we and God know what is truly in our hearts. Therefore, only God can judge whether our prayers contain our hearts.

There are some people for whom the Purim engagement with God is their true expression, and there are some for whom the details of Leviticus open their hearts. The two models are not representative of right and wrong, but a reflection of latitude. Shmot Rabbah beautifully states this point when reflecting that “we are all equal before God while in prayer.”


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