Friday, March 14, 2014

Passionate Moderation- A D'var Torah for Purim

I went through a time when I was “Kanai”, a religious zealot. Every religious argument was a fight to the death, with every hill worth dying for. Every transgression by others was deserving of Divine punishment (although somehow, my own transgressions were excluded). My wife would joke that it came with being a Levi, and having Pinchas as my bar mitzvah parsha and Eliyahu HaNavi in my haftorah. Truth is, if one examines the Jewish attitude towards zealotry as seen in the Torah and through the eyes of Chazal, it becomes clear that we live in a time where the only passion of the time should be, to quote Rabbi Norman Lamm (who should have a refuah sheleima), to be “passionately moderate”. I would suggest that this is one of the lessons of Purim.

The gemara (Shabbos 88a) discusses the idea that when it came to receiving the Torah at Har Sinai, Bnei Yisrael did not really have a choice. This is symbolically represented by the idea that God held Har Sinai over their heads and gave them a choice of accepting the Torah, or dying on the spot. Of course, this did not literally happen. The idea is that at that point knowing what they knew about HaShem and in general, being who they were and where they were, there was no choice but to accept the Torah. As noted by Rav Acha bar Yaakov, this made the acceptance less than ideal. We all know that a forced agreement is not much of an agreement. Rabah answers cryptically that they accepted the Torah willingly at the time of Purim. This is a very problematic statement. Where do we see an acceptance of the Torah during the time of Purim? If anything, the Jews are beginning to assimilate. After an analysis of knaus in the Torah, I will suggest an explanation to this challenging piece of aggada.

The first time we encounter an act of religious zealotry is when Shimon and Levi enter the city of Shechem, and kill Shechem who has raped (and/or seduced) Dinah, along with the male inhabitants of the city of Shechem. After they return, Yaakov angrily confronts them, and later, on his deathbed, mentions this heinous act (as opposed to their intent). While on a simple reading one could suggest that Shimon and Levi's actions were no more than an honor killing, it appears to be more than that. Rambam, Ramban and others struggle to understand the moral/halachic justifications for the brother's act, suggesting that there was more to the killing than simply avenging a family wrong. Tellingly, despite the explanations which suggest some sort of justification, the brothers are still seen as having acted unjustly and against the will of God. Even if Shechem has acted immorally, absent a commandment from God, one does not appoint oneself as judge, jury and executioner.

This of course, is the difference later on, when Moshe gathers the Leviyim to him with a cry of “Mi L'Hashem Eilai” to punish those who have worshiped the golden calf. Only now that God has revealed his law can the punishment be given. Only Moshe, who can speak with God “directly” can be the one to issue this call to action. Later on when Pinchas executes Zimri and Kazbi for their grossly immoral public act, Chazal are quick to limit the applicability of this act to very specific circumstances and very specific individuals. They even suggest that he got permission from Moshe before acting(!). “Kanayim pogim bo” is anything but a blanket invitation to vigilantism. Interestingly, Chazal recognized a thematic link between Pinchas and Eliyahu HaNavi (“Pinchas Zu Eliyahu”) who also is zealous for God. Ultimately, God reproaches Eliyahu for his zealousness against His/his own people, chiding him by asking whether God needs Eliyahu to stand up for him. God shows Eliyahu that He is to be encountered through a “kol demama daka” (quiet and gentle voice) rather than through thunder lightning or other powerful acts of nature. Eliyahu loses his mandate of prophecy with the implicit message that his job is to bring close, rather than to punish or push away.

While one might suggest that the story of Chanuka seems to allow for kanaus, and cries of “Mi L'HaShem Eilai”, the story does not end with the re-dedication of the Beis HaMikdash. Rather it ends with the Hasmonean descendants turning the sword against each other and against their people. Even when their actions are mentioned as part of the praises in the shemoneh esrei and birkas hamazon, their zealotry against their fellow Jews is somewhat hidden. Additionally, their less than ideal commitment to HaShem is suggested by the Ramban who says that the Chashmonaim should have given the leadership of the people to one from shevet Yehudah, rather than taking it for them selves.

Purim, the only holiday which takes place based on an event in Galus, suggests a very different approach. When the Jews of Shushan attend Achashveirsoh's party and bow to Haman, Mordechai, who along with his people, is in exile, does not try to forcibly change their behavior. Instead, he tries to lead by example. He continues to refuse to bow, no matter how much the Jews protest. In a yet to be redeemed world, the certainty which allows one to act with zealotry for the sake of God no longer exists. The transition from the almost absolute certainty of the prophet (for all but Moshe) to the lesser certainty of the chachamim has begun. “Lo BaShamayim he”. Machlokes is inevitable and even acceptable. Eilu v'eilu divrei Elokim Chayim. Mordechai can only suggest to Esther that perhaps she has become the queen for the purpose of saving the Jews. When Mordechai and Esther are successful and victorious, the sword is not turned against their brethren who have sinned, but only against the enemy which seeks to destroy them. 

This then, is the explanation for Rabbah's words in maseches Shabbos. The new acceptance of the Torah refers to the new approach to HaShem and his Torah. From this point forward, force no longer plays a role in Kabbalas HaTorah. It is no longer about an offer that can not be refused, but a willing and loving choice.

The only call of Mordechai and those who follow afterwards can be “Mi L'Hashem, L'HaShem”, those who are for God should turn to God. God can be found through his word and not the sword. Alternatively, only God can say “Mi L'Hashem Eilai”, all who desire My presence should turn to Me.


  1. Excellent Dvar Torah. The fact that Mordechai and Esther promote achdus is a great lesson. This feeling of achdus may also be why it says in the end of Megillas that Mordechai was accepted by the majority of of people. Even though they disagreed, there was still a feeling of being a Klal.

    1. Or perhaps absolute consensus is not possible post-nevuah.

  2. I am interested in exploring how you and many others from moderate backgrounds came to adopt the kanai approach in the first place. Obviously, youth (and sometimes youthful indoctrination) has a lot to do with it, but there must be more to it.