Purim: Fighting Religious Apathy Through Mature Love

The holiday of Purim is the perfect opportunity to fight religious apathy that unfortunately is so prevalent in the orthodox community.  Rav Asher Weiss explains that Purim is the holiday of “bitul ha’da’at,” meaning that we completely nullify our judgment and understanding in relation to God’s judgment and understanding.  He ties this theme to the very peculiar mitzvah to drink alcohol until we do not know the difference between Mordechai and Haman.  He argues that the concept of being in a state of “not knowing” is limited to the holiday of Purim because Purim is the holiday when we assert that our understanding is nothing compared to God’s understanding.  Furthermore, he argues that this is why the Zohar states that Yom Kippur is like Purim because both holidays involve “bittul,” or self-nullification.  On Yom Kippur, we nullify the body, as we are restricted from eating, drinking and engaging in physical pleasures.  On Purim, we nullify the mind, as we drink until we sleep, asserting that our knowledge is nothing compared to that of God who gave us the Torah.  But why?  Why are the halachot of Purim constructed in such a way that it becomes the holiday of “bitul ha’da’at?”

Let us begin our quest to answer this question by turning to the Talmud in Masechet Shabbat 98a that describes how the Bnei Yisrael accepted the Torah at different times in Jewish history.  The Talmud states that at Sinai, the Bnei Yisrael accepted the Torah by force and during the Purim story, they accepted the Purim story willingly.  This Talmudic passage seems to contradict the Midrash (Eichah Rabbah, Parshah #3) that states that when God asked us if we would accept the Torah, we responded by stating, “na’aseh v’nishma,” that we will do and we will listen.  How can we reconcile the Talmudic passage that indicates that we accepted the Torah by force at Sinai with the Midrash that indicates that we accepted the Torah willingly at Sinai?

The Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat Noach #3) explains that at Sinai the Bnei Yisrael willingly accepted Torah she’bichtav, the written Torah, and they were forced to accept Torah she’ba’al peh, the oral Torah.  They only willingly accepted Torah she’ba’al peh during the Purim story hundreds of years later.  However, the Maharal (Gur Aryeh, Shemot 17:19) explains that at Sinai, even though we verbally accepted the Torah, in reality, the acceptance was forced because we witnessed God’s divine presence in all of its glory.  If we directly perceive the presence of God, who can resist accepting His mitzvot?  This acceptance is compulsory precisely because God needs no force when He speaks out of fire to the entire nation.  Under these circumstances, we effectively have no choice but to accept the Torah.  However, during the story of Purim, God was hidden from us and, therefore, our commitment to turn to God even in this time of national calamity and afterwards became a willing commitment.

For me, these two answers which seem on the surface to be very different actually are two sides of the same coin.  Perhaps the best way to explain this is through a description of mature love by Erich Fromm.  Eric Fromm was a 20th century psychoanalyst, sociologist, philosopher, historian and economist.  In one of his writings, this is how Erich Fromm described mature love: “mature love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality.  Love is an active power in man; a power which breaks through the walls which separate man from his fellow men, which unites him with others; love makes him overcome the sense of isolation and separateness, yet it permits him to be himself, to retain his integrity. In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two.”

According to Fromm, mature love for another occurs when you feel that you are independent.  If you feel smothered by the other person such that you can’t leave the other person, then that’s not love.  Love is achieved when two things happen.  First, you are granted independence by the other person and truly feel independent. Second, you then willingly give of yourself to the other person.

What happened at Sinai?  At Sinai, God smothered us with love, so of course we accepted the Torah.  After all, we had no choice.  However, what we really accepted was Torah she’bichtav.  What is Torah she’bichtav?  That is the Torah that we receive.  At this point, we are passive and not independent.  Therefore, our acceptance isn’t a strong mature acceptance and our love for God then is not a strong mature love.  After all, at this point, we have no choice but to accept the Torah.  Indeed, once the feelings of Sinai wore off, since our love was not mature, we faltered and we sinned shortly thereafter when we built and worshipped the golden calf.

However, Purim is the world of Torah she’ba’al peh.  What is Torah she’ba’al peh? Torah she’ba’al peh is not Torah that we received, but it is Torah that we create.  In fact, Purim is the first holiday that we created and we started a trend in this era of the second Temple period with an explosion of Rabbinic laws, customs and liturgy.  When we live in a world when we create Torah, then that means that we assert our independence.  We are no longer children in the eyes of God.  We are grown men and women ready to take all that we’ve learned as children from Torah she’bichtav and we leave God’s sheltered home, as it were, venture out into the  world and partner with God to improve the world through our own laws, customs and liturgy.

As Erich Fromm explained, we only can truly love someone if we assert our independence and then give of ourselves to that person.  Similarly, we only can truly love God if we assert our independence through Torah she’ba’al peh and then give of ourselves to God.  And that’s what we did during the Purim story.  During the Purim story, we asserted our independence through Torah she’ba’al peh, and then we nullified our da’at, our intellect and our judgment in relationship to God’s da’at, intellect and judgment.  And this is what we celebrate on Purim, our spiritual independence together with a feeling of “ad d’lo yada,” or “not knowing.”

That is the why the approaches of the Midrash Tanchuma and the Maharal are two sides of the same coin.  At Sinai, we were coerced, we had no independence, as symbolized by only willing acceptance of the passive Torah she’bichtav. During the Purim story, though, we accepted Torah she’ba’al peh, we asserted our independence and then our entire commitment to God changed to a more mature love. This is why the holiday of Purim is the perfect opportunity to fight religious apathy that unfortunately is so prevalent in the orthodox community because the holiday of Purim is all about Torah she’ba’al peh – passionate, independent, creative spirituality, culminating in a deep love for God.

But how do we do this?  How do we instill a passion and love for God and spirituality in ourselves and our families?  If religion only is forced and passive without any feeling of independence to think, to question and to develop new ideas within the framework of our mesorah, then we never will learn to feel that personal, passionate connection to Torah and mitzvot that the holiday Purim represents.  Bitul ha’da’at and love and passion for God only comes when we first assert our independence and become active thinkers in Torah and then realize that it all comes from God.  Practically what does that look like for our community?  I would like to start with a modest suggestion.  Come to the Shabbat table with a dvar Torah every week.  But not just any dvar Torah.  Don’t simply quote a Rashi, a Ramban, or an idea from Rabbi Sacks.  Make the dvar Torah personal.  Reflect on what you read and apply it to something personal to you.  Provide your own unique take on the idea that you read.  If you share a dvar Torah in this fashion, then you move from being a passive Jew to being an active, passionate, creative Jew.  If you make a routine of this habit, and take more active ownership of your own spiritual growth, then you will start to feel more inspired and more connected to God than you have ever been.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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