Sunday, March 04, 2007

Ad d'Lo Yodah

אמר רבא מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי

Rabbah said: A person is obligated to celebrate on Purim until he can not distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai’.

Megillah 7b

A brief d’var torah from my pre-skeptical days:

The above statement from the Talmud, is usually taken to mean that one must become so intoxicated on Purim that he becomes confused between Haman - the evil villain in the story, and Mordechai - the hero.

There are many strange things about this law. There is no source quoted for this unprecedented requirement, which seems to defy the usual emphasis which chazal place on decorum and sobriety. And, the level of intoxication being described seems virtually impossible. If you searched out the drunkest Purim revelers you could find and put the question to them, they could probably still keep track of which character is good and which is bad.

A fascinating thing about the Purim story, is that although Haman is ranked among the most notorious villians in a long line of terrible oppressors, he, of all of them, probably has the best rational for his actions.

Think about it. Haman was a descendent from the last remaining member of the nation of Amalek – a people who were massacred down to the last man, woman and child by the Jews some 460 years earlier. But he had not only the vengeance of his people to motivate him. The Jews held that they were commanded by God to continue to hunt down and kill any living members of Amalek. So, one could reasonably argue that Haman had an understandable concern of self-defense.

Imagine if the story was told in reverse: Mordechai, the Jew, rises through the ranks to become the viceroy of the king. The evil Amalekites have moved to Persia and are growing in numbers and political strength. As they grow, their leaders begin to demonstrate outright distain for the Jews. In reaction to the growing threat to his people, and in concert with God’s explicit commandment, Mordechai engineers a plan to incite the king against the Amalekites, and have them murdered en mass. Haman, however, averts this plan through his nepotistic relationship with the queen (a secret Amalekite), through who’s influence, Mordechai is summarily executed (along with his family), and the Amalekites are given a free killing day to go seek revenge on whomever they see fit.

So was Haman evil? Was Mordechai a hero?

Sure. But it does depend a little on your point of view.

And, sometimes a little celebrating can help give us a glimpse at the other side of the story.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Purim Torah and the Hermeneutics of Mishnaic Legislative Morphology

I’ll blame e-kvetcher for starting this. He has an interesting post on the nature of Mishnah, in which he uses an amusing example to demonstrate the point (originaly from here):

"What do we do upon reaching a red light? Stop entirely; this is the opinion of Joe. Jane says that a rolling stop is acceptable. In the opinion of Sue, the answer depends on whether there are other cars on the road. Once, Joe's sons were coming home from a party in the middle of the night, and they admitted to their father that they had neglected to stop at a stop sign...")

So, here in the spirit of Purim, is the associated Gemorah, originaly from here:

G’M: From where do we know this (that one must stop at a red light)? For it says “…and he (Joshua) spoke before the eyes of Israel, sun in Gibon, stand!” Read it not ‘dome’ (stand), but rather ‘adome’ (red).

The Rabbis taught: What do you do when you reach a red light? Sue taught: stop immediately, but if the pedestrians start walking early, you can freak them out a little, for it says “in all cases, a person may not stand in a place of danger”. Jane says: Whether there are pedestrians or not, one may roll to a stop, for it says “I shall go by clouds in the day and by fire in the night”.

Sue is contradicting Sue! Here, (in the beraisah) you are driving your own ride, There, (in the mishnah), you’re driving your Uncle Milton’s clunker– these are the words of Snoop-Lakish. Or you can say; Here, the light is red when you approach the intersection, There, it’s one of those really short yellows where before you know it, the light turns red – these are the words of Larry, son of Milton.

The Rabbis taught: Joe says: One must always drive with ones eyes on the road, for it says, “thou shall not stray after your hearts and after your eyes”; ‘hearts’ – this refers to adjusting ones makeup while driving, ‘eyes’ – this refers to dialing your cell phone. And Sue says, chauvinist! ‘hearts’ - this is looking through the CDs buried under your seat, ‘eyes’ this refers to checking us out when you should be watching the road.

The Rabbis taught: Fortunate is Israel, for they shall always be blessed with green lights, for it says “…you shall deliver the blessings on Mount Greezim…” do not read it ‘Greezim’, but rather ‘Green lights’.

Happy Purim!

A Meaningless Flash of Brilliance

I know that he's borderline bipolar on religious issues and that he recycles material faster than a girl scout troop on a sugar high, but riffs like this are what make him The Godol.

"As for meaninglessness, I think it’s reasonably true that a hard core secularist/materialist ideology inevitably leads to the conclusion that mankind is here by chance, and even worse, we are probably just meat machines with an illusion of free will and consciousness. This could in theory lead to despair, nihilism and hedonism, though in practice it doesn’t seem to. This may be because the kind of people who get to this point intellectually are usually the kind of people who have the mental abilities to not descend into despair, and are also usually the kind of people for whom hedonism is probably not that attractive anyway. In fact, if you look around, the people who live hedonistic, nihilistic lifestyles are more often the simple, shallow types, who would probably claim to have a belief in God and the afterlife."

And, actually, this could be not only amusing, but true.