Getting In Touch With Our Inner Slaves

The word “slave” doesn’t generally inspire positive feelings.  For Jews, though, especially when Passover arrives, it should.

To be sure, the images evoked when we think of servitude tend to be of economically or racially oppressed classes, of men and women being treated as if they were something less than fully human.

There are other types of servitude as well that have little or nothing to do with class.  For example, whether we choose to confront it or not, we are all servants – indeed slaves – to a considerable host of masters.  Most of us are indentured to one or another degree to any of a number of physical and psychological desires.  Some are relatively innocuous, like the craving for a particular food – or for food in general – or the yearning to be entertained or pampered or allowed to sleep late.  Other desires are more sinister, like the compulsion to ingest some addictive chemical, or the lust to lord oneself over other people, or the coveting of property or persons.

In contemporary times, many of us are enslaved virtually without even knowing it – chained to our work, taking orders from advertisers, moving to the dictates of the arbiters of style, addicted to the media or to the Internet.  Oddly, every modern opportunity seems to morph into a new master; new options pull us even further from true freedom.

It seems almost as if it is a hard-wired part of human nature that we serve.  Indeed, Judaism maintains, it is, and for good reason: Because we are meant to be servants.

We just have to choose the right master.

Most people are aware that Passover is the Jewish holiday of freedom, commemorating how the distant ancestors of today’s Jews, embraced by God and led by Moses, threw off the yoke of Pharaoh’s enslavement.  But there is something very essential to the Passover account that many don’t realize: Though Egypt was rejected, servitude was not.

“Let My people go!” G-d ordered Pharaoh.  But the command doesn’t end there.  It continues: “… so that they may serve Me.”

The Jewish concept of freedom, or cherut, does not mean being unfettered, but rather fettered to what is meaningful; it does not mean independence but rather subservience – not to the mundane but to the divine.

Which is why Passover, in a sense, doesn’t end after its seven (or, outside of the Holy Land, eight) days.  On the second day of the holiday, following the Biblical command, observant Jews begin counting, marking each of the following forty-nine days by pronouncing a blessing and assigning the day a number.  The fiftieth day, the day after the counting, or Sefirat Ha’Omer, is completed, is the holiday of Shevuot (“Weeks”); it is in a very real sense the culmination of Passover.

For according to Jewish tradition, Shevuot is the anniversary of the revelation at Sinai, of the day the Torah was given to the Jewish people.  And therein lies the deep secret of Jewish freedom.

The life of a libertine is not freedom but quite its opposite, enslavement to transient pleasures, to substances and possessions, to the dictates of society.  Meaningful freedom, paradoxically, is being indentured – but to the ultimate master, the Master of all.  And so as we count the days – quite literally – from the holiday of freedom to the holiday of Torah, we express (and, hopefully impress on ourselves) just how inextricably the theme of Passover is linked to that of Shevuot, how the ultimate expression of true freedom is having the courage and mettle to throw off the yoke of temporal masters and commit ourselves to what is meaningful in an ultimate sense: the will and law of G-d.

The rabbis of the Talmud put it pithily, punning on the Hebrew word for “etched,” used about the words carved on the Tablets of the Law.  The word is “charut,” which the Rabbis compare to cherut, freedom.

“The only free person,” they inform us, “is the one immersed in Torah.”



The Proof of the Purim

Something begun at Har Sinai reached its fruition at the time of the Purim miracle, according to Chazal.  “They established and they received” – Megillas Esther informs us, ostensibly about the holiday of Purim itself but, according to the Gemora in Mesechta Megilla, about a deeper idea as well:

“They established [at Purim] what they had already received [at Har Sinai].”

Somehow, through the Jews’ actions in Persia at the time of Mordechai and Esther, Klal Yisroel’s acceptance of the Torah that occurred hundreds of years earlier became fully realized.

Purim’s Passive Voice

 “Receiving” – or submission – is certainly an important Purim motif.  Esther, for her part, does not actively seek, but rather “passively” accepts, the position foisted on her by Achashveirosh, as she does his attentions (see Sanhedrin 74b).  The Purim miracle itself, for that matter, is anything but a forceful one, nothing like the splitting of the Yam Suf or the earth’s opening up to swallow Korach’s men; it, too, is pointedly subtle, an almost quiescent demonstration of Hashem’s power, which is only delicately evident in the turns of events.

Even the Mesechta dedicated to Purim begins in the passive voice: “The Megilla is read;” it reads, rather than the more usual, expected, active-voice introduction, “We read…”

But, aside from the vague notion of Purim – “passivity,” symbolizing “acceptance” of the Torah or “submission” to Hashem, what – to paraphrase Rashi’s famous comment regarding Shmitta – has Purim to do with Har Sinai?

Coercion or Conviction?

 The answer to the question likely lies on a path that unfolds from an even more fundamental query: What exactly was missing in the first place when our ancestors received the Torah?  How, in other words, was that seminal event – at which the Jewish nation was charged with the mission that justifies Creation itself, and said “Na’aseh v’nishma” in unison – somehow incomplete?

 As it happens, the Gemora itself asks and answers that very question, pointing to the fact that “Hashem held the mountain over the Jews’ heads like a barrel,” forcing them, in effect, to accept the Torah.  The Maharal explains that the “forcing” can be understood as referring to the powerful, overwhelming nature of the experience… the fearful thunder, lighting, the terrifying interaction of human and divine.

The sheer awe and trauma of Mattan Torah, the Gemora teaches us, is itself a “flaw” of sorts in the experience, for it gives the rest of the world a “remonstration” against the Jews, the claim that it was the duress born of the forceful, overpowering nature of the event that caused our ancestors to accept Hashem and His Torah, not true conviction and will.

Choosing to See

 Enter Purim.  That the Jews chose – sans thunder and lighting, sans Hashem’s undeniable, overpowering words – to respond to Haman’s threat with prayer, fasting and teshuva, and then to see Hashem’s hand in the individually unremarkable events that led to their salvation from Haman’s plan…that was true proof of their utter acceptance of Hashem and His will, the conclusive refutation of the world’s claim that our acceptance of His Torah was somehow lacking.

So it was by their having accepted Hashem where one could so easily have “missed” Him, their choosing to see His hand and to submit themselves to Him, that the Jews of Shushan – and by extension all Jews – confirmed that the Jewish acceptance of the Torah was – and is – wholehearted, sincere and pure.

 “They established [at Purim] what they had already received [at Har Sinai]

Intoxication and Revelation

Interesting enough, one of the ways that Chazal say a person’s true nature is revealed is “b’koso” – “in his cup” – in his behavior when his inhibitions are diluted by strong drink.

And on Purim, in such striking contrast to the rest of the Jewish year, there is a mitzvah to drink wine to excess.  Needless to say, if such drinking is likely to cause improper behavior, it is forbidden, and so the mitzvah d’Rabbanan (part of that of seudas Purim) could only have been enacted on the assumption that only the essential good of the Jew will be revealed by his drunkenness.

And, indeed, among true b’nei Torah who endeavor to fulfill Purim’s requirement “libesumi” in its most straightforward sense, what emerges is not the anger and licentiousness that the larger world, for good reason, has come to associate with inebriation, but rather a holy, if uninhibited, “teshuva-mode” of mind; mechillos (forgiveness for transgression, real and imagined) are sought, deep feelings expressed.

Thus the revelation of our true nature that the Purim-mitzva provides is most pointedly and perfectly reminiscent of the revelation of Jews’ wholehearted acceptance of Hashem that took place at the time of the Purim miracle!  With our masks (another Purim motif) removed, we show our true selves, and, hopefully, they are selves that are in consonance with true, uncompromised Kabbolos HaTorah.


Peering into the Barrel

What is poignantly noteworthy is that even the language the Gemora uses to describe how we were “forced” to accept the Torah at Har Sinai might subtly allude to that astonishing mitzvah of Purim, and to its deeper significance.

For “holding the mountain over their heads” would have surely been quite sufficient to convey the idea of coercion, would it not?  Why add the worlds “like a barrel”?

In Pirkei Avos, though, we are taught not “to look at the container, but at what it holds”.

 And a gigis (“barrel”), throughout the Gemora, is something that holds an intoxicating beverage.

Because of Purim, our Creator looks, in other words, not at the “coercion” of the barrel held over our ancestors’ heads, but at the deeper truth revealed by what such barrels contain – at the truth about our essence revealed by Purim’s wine.

© 1996 The Jewish Observer