Sunday, March 11, 2012

Purim, Revelation, and Tel Aviv

Purim, Revelation, and Bus Routes in Tel Aviv

One of the literary threads that tie Megillat Esther together is “Nahafoch Hu” or reversals.  Let me share just two examples of this literary device.  Haman plots to kill all the Jews and at the very end he, his 10 sons, and all of his supporters are put to death.  One night when sleep evades King Achashverosh, he asks that his book of records be read to him.  He learns that nothing had been done to reward Mordechai for saving his life.  Who should be in the court but Haman to ask permission to hang Mordechai.  The King asks Haman “what honor should be done for a man whom the king desires to honor.”  *(6:6)  Haman thinks the king is speaking about himself and advises him to dress the honoree in the king’s clothing, be ridden around town on the king’s horse, and let them shout before the honoree “This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor.”   To Haman’s utter shock and dismay the king said, “Quick, then! Get the garb and the horse, as you have said, and do this to Mordechai the Jew who sits in the king’s gate. Omit nothing of all you have proposed.” ()

The Rabbis have always loved Megillat Esther. They taught: “The truth of the Book of Esther is like the truth of Torah…just as the Torah requires interpretation, so does the book of Esther.  (Jer. Talmuld Megillah 1:1)  The Book of Esther was given to Moses on Sinai, but since there is no chronological order in the Torah, it appears after the Five Books of Moses.  Rabbi Yochanan said that the Prophets and the Writings will one day be annulled, but the words of the Torah will not…Resh Lakish added that the Book of Esther will also never be invalidated. (Jer. Talmud Megillah 1:5)

They saw an even deeper connection and more between Purim and Torah which bears on the current situation in Tel Aviv.  “And they stood under the mountain.” (Ex. 19:17). Rav Avdimi ben Hama ben Hasa said: “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain and suspended it upon them like a barrel and said to them: “If you accept the Torah, well and good, but if not-there shall be your burial!”  Rabbi Aha ben Jacob observed: “This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah.” (i.e., a blanket excuse for nonobservance of a covenant ratified under duress). (The same principal is being applied when art work is being returned to survivors and their descendants since the sale of these paintings were not volitional but coerced by the Nazis.) Said Rava: “Yet even so, they accepted it again in the days of Ahashverosh, for it is written: ‘They confirmed and they assumed, the Jews, upon themselves’ (Esther 9:27); they ratified (with the institution of Purim) what they took upon them long before (at Sinai).” (Shabbat 88a) 

Because accepting the covenant at Sinai was under duress, Jews could now nullify the agreement. Rabbi David Hartman extrapolated an important lesson from this Gemarra. “What began at Sinai as an externally imposed system of norms had become a successful internalization of those norms when Purim was identified as the celebration of the free acceptance of the Torah.  (A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Tradition Judaism, page 219)  I understand this to mean that Judaism can only be meaningful and valid if it is accepted voluntarily and not coerced by God or the Rabbis.

All this Purim Torah made me return to reflect upon the first Shabbat in Tel Aviv of our Leadership Institute seminar in Israel.  Jews generally gravitate to Jerusalem for Shabbat because there is a shul on every corner as well as the opportunity to daven at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in the Old City.  On the other hand, Tel Aviv has the reputation of a secular city that never sleeps.  We were asked to reflect upon our Shabbat there because Tel Aviv isn’t a usual Shabbat destination. 

As my small group walked to Yakar, the shul we chose to daven in, I was amazed how few cars were on the road and how few stores and restaurants were opened. I came up with two possible reasons.  One, perhaps there are more traditional Jews in Tel Aviv than I suspected. Or two, everybody was still sleeping in from the previous night’s revelry at the numerous night clubs that rock until dawn.

Later on the trip the newspapers reported “Green light, red light: Tel Aviv okays buses on Shabbat, fears brakes to be put on plan   Resolution needs approval by Transportation Ministry, which city officials consider unlikely to come through." The municipality will submit a detailed request to the Transportation Ministry to operate essential [bus] lines on Shabbat," states Monday's resolution, which passed in a 13-7 vote and was sponsored by city council member Tamar Zandberg (Meretz ). "This is out of a desire to allow public transportation from neighborhoods in the north, the south and Jaffa to the center of town, the sea and recreation venues." Zandberg said maintaining the existing religious balance was not adequate justification for keeping residents from using public transit. (Ha’aretz published Feb. 21, 2012)

Of course, the Orthodox religious political parties came out decrying this change of the status quo.  In response, I truly feel like a Purim Jew who has gone through “Nahafoch Hu.”  I love the quiet Shabbat atmosphere in Israel when cars are off the road and businesses are closed.  It truly is a taste of the World to Come. Nevertheless, for Shabbat to be a meaningful part of one’s life, its observance can’t be compelled.  For all those who love Shabbat we need to persuade others of the beauty and need for a Shabbat in one’s life and act as positive role models.  Our message can be heard as proof of the thousand secular Jews joining in prayer on the beach of Tel Aviv each Shabbat as we learned.  Even though I am a traditional observant Conservative Rabbi, if I were on the Tel Aviv City Counsel I would have voted with the majority to allow buses to run on Shabbat.  Let those who want to ride, ride and those who don’t, don’t.

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