Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Second Chances- How the Jews of Shushan came to re-accept the Torah

In what is one of my favorite midrashim, Chazal suggest that Bnei Yisrael’s initial acceptance of the Torah, in the time of the Exodus was flawed, and was only corrected in the time of Purim. I’ve always been fascinated by the imagery and idea of God holding a mountain over the heads of Bnei Yisrael and forcing them to accept the Torah, as well as the recognition that this type of acceptance was inherently flawed. What could this mean, and how can we suggest that the Torah was re-accepted in the time of the Purim story, at the time when the Jew’s lives were literally threatened.? I’d like to suggest that the answer might be found in a poem.

In Renascence, a poem written by Edna St. Vincent Millay nearly 100 years ago, the story is told of a person who discovers  the grandeur of the world in which she lives:

I screamed, and—lo!—Infinity

Came down and settled over me;
Forced back my scream into my chest,

Bent back my arm upon my breast,

And, pressing of the Undefined

The definition on my mind,

Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass

Until it seemed I must behold

Immensity made manifold

Later, she discovers that extant within that grandeur, there also exists a world of pain and suffering

A man was starving in Capri;

He moved his eyes and looked at me;
I felt his gaze, I heard his moan,

And knew his hunger as my own.

I saw at sea a great fog bank

Between two ships that struck and sank;

A thousand screams the heavens smote

Unable to see and, even more, feel and bare the pain, she asks to die and is given her wish, and thus, freed from her pain

Long had I lain thus, craving death,

When quietly the earth beneath

Gave way, and inch by inch, so great

At last had grown the crushing weight,

Into the earth I sank till I
Full six feet under ground did lie,

And sank no more,—there is no weight

Can follow here, however great.

From off my breast I felt it roll,

And as it went my tortured soul
Burst forth and fled in such a gust

It is only when she hears the rain fall upon her grave that she comes to realize that she will never again witness the beauty and grandeur of the world

I would I were alive again

To kiss the fingers of the rain,
To drink into my eyes the shine

Of every slanting silver line,

To catch the freshened, fragrant breeze

From drenched and dripping apple-trees.

For soon the shower will be done,
And then the broad face of the sun

Will laugh above the rain-soaked earth

Until the world with answering mirth

Shakes joyously, and each round drop

Rolls, twinkling, from its grass-blade top

She prays and is given back her soul, and with it, a second lease on life

Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I

And hailed the earth with such a cry

As is not heard save from a man

Who has been dead, and lives again.

About the trees my arms I wound;
Like one gone mad I hugged the ground

Given a second chance, she discovers the Godliness that has existed in the world all along, ready to be seen by those who will only open their eyes

The world stands out on either side

No wider than the heart is wide;

Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high.

The heart can push the sea and land

Farther away on either hand;

The soul can split the sky in two,

And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart

That can not keep them pushed apart;

And he whose soul is flat—the sky

Will cave in on him by and by.

Let’s apply this to the aforementioned midrash.

When Bnei Yisrael received the Torah, they existed in a bubble where God’s grandeur could not be ignored. They owed their very existence to God’s miracles, and could not have survived in the wilderness without them. Awestruck, they had no choice but to accept the Torah. Still, such an agreement is inherently lacking. How can an acceptance based on an unworldly experience count, for those who would soon be thrust into a world of pain? Would they not have tremendous remorse when they discover all of the suffering that exists within the natural world? One could certainly argue that their acceptance was based upon a faulty understanding.

The Jews who lived at the time of the Purim story, were living in a very different world. Their world was one where 10 of the of the 12 tribes had been driven off, perhaps, to never return again. Theirs was a world where God’s very existence seemed to be open to doubt, as He had allowed thousands of men, women and children to die, and allowed His holy abode to be destroyed. One could not blame the Jews of that generation for wishing to give up; to metaphysically die, and stop having to deal with the struggles of theodicy.

Then, they are given their wish. They are told that the chosen nation will no longer have to live with the struggles, or, in fact, live at all. A genocidal maniac is ready to destroy them all. On the cusp of destruction, after coming together and praying, they are given a second chance. This time, they accept their relationship based not upon miracles, but upon a realization that, even when He appears absent, that God can be seen by those are willing to look.


  1. Thanks - I needed a shtickl Toirah for the seuda tomorrow - this is perfect.

  2. Beautiful! I like your summary and application better than I like her poem itself.