An opportunity for spiritual cleansing

Only by accepting the purpose behind recommitting oneself to “regard himself as though he had emerged from Egypt” can we dance at a Purim banquet even when our legs feel heavy with sadness.

April 18, 2011 16:13
4 minute read.
A page on the Four Sons from a 1950s Haggada.

haggada four sons_311. (photo credit: David Geffen)

Although I could not have known it at the time, a discussion that erupted at the Purim table in Beit El provided fodder for some pre-Pessah head-scratching. We all had had a lot to drink, and spirits were high. Some of the men had begun to dance around the room, and the young children – dressed as cowboys, brides, Teletubbies, superheroes and princesses – stared in bewilderment as their bizarrely costumed parents sang at the top of their lungs and reenacted the Purim shenanigans of their parents, grandparents and those who came before them.

One woman said, “Today it feels a little wrong to dance. I can’t stop thinking about the Fogels. Part of me thinks that Purim should have been canceled this year.”

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Everyone agreed that the holiday felt different “after Itamar,” and our banquet grew slightly gloomy when the woman described her friendship with Ruti Fogel.

Not wanting the party to come to a standstill, the hostess proclaimed, “We have to have Purim. Especially this year! Especially now. Because if we wait until Purim ‘makes sense,’ those of us who live in Israel are finished. It will never make sense!”

Two Jews, five opinions. The discussions began, and the rationale behind observing the upcoming Pessah in such meticulous detail year after year became very clear, even as the hamantaschen were being wolfed down and espressos were poured for the sobering drive home.

“In every generation a person must regard himself as though he had emerged from Egypt.”

Teaching the next generation about the Exodus from Egypt ranks among the major themes of the Seder night. We are exhorted to have the Seder prepared before the holiday starts, and everyone should hurry home from shul in order to cover as much of the Haggada as possible before the younger children fall asleep.

The text of the Haggada revolves around the “Ma Nishtana,” and the answers are offered in the form of a narrative, explaining in painstaking detail the rationale for this commemoration to four archetypal sons.

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For many, the Rasha (the Evil Son) is the most interesting, and commentators have had a field day addressing his seemingly aggressive “What is this service to you?”

Modern parents, beset with egalitarian thinking and Montessori values, have struggled to classify him as a deep thinker and not really a bad or bratty kid.

On the surface, his question is not different from the questions of the other sons. What is different, however, is his tone and phraseology. The Haggada comments on this seemingly innocent question by saying, “He thinks that the mitzvot are only for you but not for him! Because he doesn’t want to be part of us.”

We are commanded to respond clearly, without hesitation: “Because of this, God acted for me when He took me out of Egypt.”

According to Rashi, “this” is referring to the commandments of Pessah. God took us out of Egypt because He knew that we would keep the commandments pertaining to Pessah throughout history.

Those of us who relegate consideration of the four sons only once a year are sidestepping valuable opportunities for reflection because the portrait of the Rasha is relevant for us today. While Jewish belief demands that we not close our eyes to advances in the secular world, Judaism also asks that we reject many of the principles espoused by the secular culture. Traditional Jews walk a fine line that separates modernity from “heresy.”

The Rasha, however, has completely lost his balance. He has embraced secular culture without condition. His typically cynical approach to God and religion allows him to accept only those aspects of communal religiosity that he can understand. The rest, he claims, is either the design of fanatics who are trapped in the Dark Ages or is the invention of God but no longer applicable to our modern lives. “Times change” is his motto.

The Rasha attacks the entire basis for the Seder night. He might understand that recalling the Pascal sacrifice, the parting of the waters and related mitzvot may have served a historical purpose when the People of Israel lived in Egypt and even in the early years of the post-Exodus period. “But today?” asks the Rasha. “We are not demonstrating anything with these ancient rituals. They don’t make sense in a modern world!”

While the argument may be time worn, it cannot be ignored. When asked, “Isn’t it pointless to do a mitzva whose social significance is gone?” any response should be clear. “Because I am sweating over all this ‘pointless ritual’ in the year 2011, God took me out of Egypt so long ago.”

The historical context is icing on the cake, provided to help us gain some insight into and to draw meaning from the “work” we do each year. “Social significance” was never the main point.

The weeks and days preceding the Pessah holiday can be fraught with tension. So much energy is spent worrying about the disposing of physical hametz, that many of us miss out on what can – and should – be an opportunity for spiritual and emotional cleansing, the likes of which cannot be attained in any spa or meditative retreat.

Only by accepting the purpose behind reenacting, remembering and recommitting oneself to “regard himself as though he had emerged from Egypt” can we dance at a Purim banquet even when our legs feel heavy with sadness.

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