Smoke & Mirrors

“It was taught: we publicly expound on the laws and details of Passover thirty days before the Passover festival.”

Talmud, Pesachim 6a

 

At first glance, this seems an eminently sensible piece of advice. In many households across the globe, the very mention of the word ‘Passover’ rivals ‘Voldemort’ for the sheer panic it inspires. Kitchens need scrubbing, food needs buying (loads of it; enough potato flour to stave off the apocalypse and enough tin foil to worry NASA), cars need vacuuming (the annual pantomime hunt of ‘The Life of a Pretzel – Boldly Going Where no Man Has Gone Before’), silver needs polishing and children need entertaining (why do they break up from school so early?!). Best get started early, right?

But at second glance, there is something quite peculiar at play here. There is some confusion as to precisely how this 30-day period is calculated, but the emphasis of “before the Passover festival” implies that one counts backwards from the 14th of the month of Nissan. And herein lies the problem.

30 days before the 14th of Nisan is the 14th of the month of Adar. And the 14th of Adar is Purim.

So let’s just get this straight: Bang in the middle of the Purim festivities, when we’re running around delivering mishloach manot, begging and cajoling uncooperative youngsters to put on the costumes we completely forgot about and had to source from China at £12.99 postage and packaging to get them delivered on time, the music is pumping, the wine is flowing…

And into the manic celebration steps an unexpected guest: The apparent requirement to drop everything and start learning about Passover.

Interestingly, the encroachment doesn’t end here. In fact, it isn’t even one-way.

“Then Mordechai said to Esther: Do not imagine that you will be able to escape in the King’s palace any more than the rest of the Jews. Who knows whether it was for just such a time as this that you attained the royal position!

So Esther said in reply to Mordechai: Go then, assemble all the Jews of Shushan, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days. Night and day, my maids and I will also fast. And then I will stand before the King even though it is unlawful. And if I perish, I perish.”

Book of Esther, 5:13-16

 

The Fast of Esther, nowadays observed by communities across the world on the eve of Purim, commemorates the original days of fasting and penitence decreed by the heroine of the Purim story as she prepared to beseech Achashverosh on behalf of her People.

And yet, that original fast wasn’t merely one day. It was three. And those three days didn’t occur in the month of Adar. According to the Talmud (Megillah 15a, cf. Rashi there), Esther decreed the fast across the 14th, 15th and 16th days of the month of Nissan.

In other words, in the Jewish year 3404 and for the first time in close to a millennium, Seder night simply didn’t happen. That year, the eve of Passover as well as the first two days of the festival were marked by intense mourning and abstinence from food or drink. That year, the need to sow the seeds for the Purim miracle yet to come overrode the need to celebrate the Pesach miracle long past. The four cups of wine were no doubt sorely missed, the matzah perhaps somewhat less so. But the common denominator here is unmistakeable:

Our sages insist that Passover must encroach on Purim, and Esther insisted that Purim encroached on Pesach. To what end are these two festivals so purposefully intertwined?

Let’s digress for a moment to analyse another peculiar statement:

“And Moses led the people out from the camp to greet God. And they stood at the foot of the mountain.”

Exodus 19:17

Nothing too untoward about this, right?

“Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa commented: This teaches us that God suspended the mountain over their heads and announced: ‘If you accept the Torah, fantastic! But if not, there will you be buried!”

Talmud Shabbat 88a

Wrong. The implications here are worrying to the brink of terrifying. Rabbi Avdimi esoterically deduces from the word ‘at the foot of’, in the original Hebrew: ‘underneath’, that the Jewish people literally stood under Mt Sinai and there they were coerced into accepting the Torah!

This interpretation opens up a can of worms so non-kosher that the Talmud itself cannot let the comment pass:

 

“Rav Acha bar Yaakov replied: If so, our acceptance of the Torah carries in it an enormous loophole! How and why can we be held accountable for our transgressions if we were forced into accepting it?!”

Ibid.

 

The loophole here is so great that even the finest Jewish lawyers wouldn’t be able to close it. Far, far worse than Kosher-for-Passover bagels or pizza. How on Earth can Jew take Judaism seriously if the entire infrastructure was premised on a non-choice? In what way was the revelation at Sinai – pointedly the bedrock of our belief – any better than putting a gun to someone’s head and compelling them to act?

Conveniently, the questions posed at the zenith of the Passover narrative are apparently answered by Purim…

“Rava resolved this problem: Nevertheless, the Jewish people recommitted themselves to the Torah following the Purim miracle, as it is written (Esther 9:27) “They established and accepted it again”.

Ibid.

 

Intriguingly, the Talmud lets the point rest here. Instead of flat-out disagreeing with Rav Avdimi’s novel reading of an otherwise completely innocuous verse, his version of events is accepted and we must therefore look elsewhere for an alternative answer. Purim, it would seem, is the perfect tonic to Passover’s theological headache. How so?

There are two types of miracle, overt and covert. The first cannot be ignored. The second is only ‘miraculous’ to those who choose to see it so.

Rav Avdimi’s point is actually well-reasoned. The Jewish people have just witnessed 10 cataclysmic plagues that succeeded in bringing an obstinate tyrant to his royal knees. These were swiftly followed by the splitting of the Red Sea and destruction of the Egyptian army, then a mad dash to Sinai barely over a month later led by a pillar of fire and cloud. Having witnessed display after display of divine fireworks, what reaction can be expected other than ‘we will do and we will listen’? The description of Mt Sinai ‘suspended’ over our heads is obviously figurative. But when viewed against the backdrop of the Exodus and the overt miracles therein, is it a description that is really so far from the psychological truth?

And so we arrive at the true source of the problem: At Sinai, the Jewish people accepted the Torah on the understanding and premise that God’s presence would remain overt and obvious. In other words, as long as the Instructor is palpable, we are more than happy to follow the instruction. But what happens, asks the Talmud, when the miracles dry up, when God’s presence becomes gradually more concealed? Do we simply abandon our faith? Sue the Creator for a breach of terms & conditions and leave Judaism to slowly ebb away, a dying echo of what once was?

For this reason, our celebration during Passover is – surprisingly – somewhat curtailed. There is an almost universal custom to remove a drop of wine from the cup as each of the 10 plagues are mentioned. Beyond this, our recital of Hallel – the songs of praise added to the service on special occasions – is cut in half on the 7th and 8th days of the holiday. Non-coincidentally, these specific days commemorate the splitting of the Red Sea.

At the simplest level of explanation, we curtail our joy in order to express a certain level of regret for the collateral suffering of the Egyptians. For all of their oppression and abuse, our Biblical taskmasters were human beings, and their death and suffering are therefore objectively regrettable.

But at a deeper level, there is a painful realisation that the joy of Passover is curtailed because it didn’t last. Less than a millennium later, the First Temple lay in ruins, the Jewish People scattered across the cradle of civilisation, the era of prophecy at an end and the future one of bleak confusion. The fireworks were well and truly over.

Into this melee steps a holiday of utterly unbridled celebration. If Passover’s joy is somewhat limited, Purim’s knows absolutely no bounds.

Because we chose to celebrate it.

Of the 24 books in Tanach, the Book of Esther is the only one lacking any mention of God’s name. The Purim miracle was entirely concealed. God’s name is only there if you chose to see it. In its absence, the entire tale is reduced to a convoluted tale of political intrigue woven across over ten years of apparently disconnected coincidences starting with the threat of genocide and ending with the relief of redemption. And we don’t celebrate coincidence.

Unlike Passover, Purim tells the story of a covert miracle. To this end, we hide behind masks, deliver gifts to perfect strangers and give charity to unknown causes. But our joy is exuberantly endless. The faith of the Exodus was spoon-fed. The faith of Purim was entirely self-taught. And for this, it endures forever…

“The Purim celebration will never be nullified.”

Midrash, Book of Proverbs 9:2

 

The turning point of the Purim story came with Esther’s profound realisation:

The Temple lays in ruins. The prophecies promising its reconstruction within 70 years appear to be unfounded. A malicious Prime Minister goes about fulfilling his genocidal plan with full support of her despot husband the King.

There is no point in celebrating Passover if the faith it delivered on the crest of a Red Sea wave of blood, hail and locusts is rapidly disintegrating. The Jewish People needed to press ‘reset’ before ‘snooze’ became the default – and permanent – option. And so she declared a fast. A fast that would sharpen our focus to the question that superseded all others:

True enough, our forefathers gladly and joyously accepted the Torah at Sinai. But that was with the mountain figuratively suspended over their heads – such was the obviousness of God’s presence! Now that God has retreated behind the veil…are we still committed to the Covenant forged all those years ago, or was the Exodus all for nothing?

And the people answered. They answered in their droves. They answered in the affirmative. They fasted on the eve of Passover, then again on the first day of the festival, and again on the second day – the 16th of Nissan. They boldly and proudly declared that true faith shouldn’t rely on a mountain of miracles suspended overhead. And on the 17th of Nissan, Haman was suspended. Hanged on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordechai in a delightful twist of ‘coincidence’ covertly creating Covenant anew.

Aeons ago, the self-taught faith of Purim drew its strength from Passover. Today, Passover draws its strength from Purim.

“It was taught: we publicly expound on the laws and details of Passover thirty days before the Passover festival.”

Talmud, Pesachim 6a

 

On the day that we reaffirm our commitment to a faith that could well have slowly faded to black, we begin to study the laws and details of the story that started it all. In realising that both miracles – overt and covert – came from the same source, we reaffirm our belief that the Passover celebration isn’t merely a tribute to a Judasim of a bygone era, to legends of a distant past. It is a celebration of that which is yet to come. Of a time when covert reverts to overt. A time when the fireworks once again dazzle and amaze those who still gaze at the stars. Of the unrealised potential of a people who have swam upstream for most of its history to reach the Promised Land. To reach an era of peace and prosperity for all of humanity. To reach a realisation of that song that echoes in our ears as we conclude the Seder.

 

Next year in Jerusalem.

 

 

L’ilui Nishmas Rochel bas Berel Halevi.

- March 28th 2018

About the Author

image
Rabbi Eli Birnbaum Eli studied in Talmudic College in Israel for six years before attaining rabbinic ordination from the Jerusalem Kollel. Eli completed a BSc in Criminology & Social Psychology. Together with his wife Naomi, Eli moved back to London to take up a position in the JLE’s campus department, setting up Lunch & Learns across London’s major campuses, as well as creating the ‘Genesis+’ program, aimed at older students and post-graduates. Following this, Eli taught Jewish Studies at Hasmonean for a year, before moving to Aish to work as an educator, primarily focused on the burgeoning Young Professional demographic and, more recently, as the Director of Education for Aish UK. Eli is a lifelong Spurs fan and an avid reader, citing his favourite book as ‘Legends of Our Time’ by Elie Weisel. Eli and his wife Naomi live in Golders Green and have three adorable children. 

More in this series

Responsibility - The Impossible Dream

I Closed My Eyes….

Trial by Twitter

Track & Trace

What's in a Name

God's Jedi Mind Trick: A Star Wars Story (kind of)

The Dark Night Rises: Exodus with Tom Hardy

Gangs of New York

The Refugee Crisis: A Jewish Perspective

Smoke & Mirrors

Bo - Between a Rock and a Hard Place

#Fakenews - Parashat Vayigash

Vayeitzei - Lies, Damned Lies & Statistics

Toldot - Strength of a Thousand Men

Chayei Sara: The Sequel No-one Asked For

Vayeira: Ctrl + C, Ctrl + V

Sitting on the Fence

Noah’s Sweet Fifteen

Uniting a Fragmented World

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