Friday, March 17, 2017

Parashat Ki Tisa and Esther''s Moral Courage

    Shabbat Shalom! This week we continue to carry with us the joy of Purim into one more Shabbat, and reflect on what we can learn by connecting this week’s Torah portion with our Purim story. This week’s portion is Parashat Ki Tisa, the story of the Golden Calf. The Israelites have witnessed great miracles and wonders at the hands of God, and yet they want an idol. They witnessed the plagues, the Sea of Reeds parting, their own miraculous liberation, and yet they aren’t sure God is with them. They experience revelation at Mount Sinai, an experience so intense that the entire people of Israel go into sensory overload and ask Moses to go talk privately with God and report back to them. When this one-on-one chat that they asked for takes longer than expected, they give up quite quickly. Now, I know that spiritually speaking, the whole people are basically small children. They are truly new to this whole “God” thing, having been abandoned as slaves in Egypt for generations, but still, reading about the miracles they witnessed and their defiant whining and idolatry in spite of those miracles, can feel exasperating. Even Moses has his tensions with needing more evidence of God. In this week’s portion, despite their deeply personal conversations and God’s immense trust in Moses through the whole Exodus process, Moses demands to see the face of God. God responds, “You cannot see My face, for no man shall see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). A midrash from the Talmud draws a quote from Parashat Shemot, from our Torah portion a few weeks ago, that when Moses approached the Burning Bush, he hid his face. God tried to show Moses God’s face already, and Moses would not look. Not that Moses wants to see it, God is unwilling to show it (Talmud, Berachot 7a).
On the other hand, Mordecai has no miracles to trust on, Esther has no personal chats with God. And yet, they have faith. God is not mentioned at all in the entire Megillat Esther, and yet Esther fasts along with the entire wailing Jewish community of Persia. Neither of them, nor seemingly the whole distraught people, directly entreat God, demand to see God, demand to be hidden from God’s overwhelming presence, or otherwise seem to expect anything other than a general vibe of Divine Goodness as Esther takes matters into her own hands to rescue the Jews.
    In the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) the rabbis argue about what really happened during the period of time the Israelites spent at Mount Sinai: “Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa said: This teaches that the Holy One covered them with the mountain like an [overturned] vat.  And God said to them, "If you accept the Torah, good. And if not, there will be your burial." Rav Acha bar Yaakov said, from here is a strong signal [of coercion] regarding [acceptance of] the Torah. Rava said: Nevertheless, they accepted it again in the days of Achashveirosh, as it is written (Esther 9:27), "The Jews established and accepted"--they established [in the days of Achashveirosh] what they had already accepted [in the days of Moshe].” Although Rav Avdimi’s midrash is deeply uncomfortable to Rav Acha (and myself), Rava smooths the conversation by asserting that no matter what occurred at Mount Sinai to convince this fearful, uncertain new nation to accept the Torah, our people’s embracing of our traditions was reaffirmed in the era of the Purim story. Former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks, expands on this: “The real test of faith came when G-d was hidden. Rava's quotation from the Book of Esther is pointed and precise. The book is one of only two in Tenakh which does not contain the name of G-d. The rabbis suggested that the name Esther is an allusion to the phrase haster astir et panai, "I will surely hide My face." The book relates the first warrant for genocide against the Jewish people. That Jews remained Jews under such conditions was proof positive that they did indeed re-affirm the covenant. Obstinate in their disbelief during much of the biblical era, they became obstinate in their belief ever afterward. Faced with G-d's presence, they disobeyed Him. Confronted with His absence, they stayed faithful to Him. That is the paradox of the stiff-necked people.”
    In the modern era, we can reasonably expect to be more like Esther, Mordecai, or the Jews of Shushan than we can to relate to Moses, Aaron, or the Israelite people at Mount Sinai. Revelation rarely comes in thundersnow and synesthesia anymore, with God’s voice directly in our ears, accompanied by great supernatural miracles. But we do still face moral crises, dangers to our people and our friends and neighbors, and we can still summon the inner strength from a sense of Divine Goodness to stand up for ourselves and others. Though God may seem hidden from us, and indeed sometimes we may feel the need to hide ourselves from God or other humans, at our cores we know that we have the power to tap into Mordecai’s wisdom, Esther’s courage, and the moral strength of our Jewish traditions. We accept and affirm in every transition of life and at every holiday and season the power of Judaism and the guidance of Torah. May each of us be blessed to see Divinity in the hidden shadows of the world, that we may gather the fortitude to carry on as American Jews in the modern world. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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