Purim: Celebrating Our Limitations, The First Step Towards Freedom

Obviously, the observance of Purim is not a celebration of boorish drunkenness, but it is a celebration of intellectual fallibility. The goal we aim at is עד דלא ידע, ad d’lo yada, until you don’t know (the difference between “bless Mordechai and curse Haman“).  The entire story, the Megilla of Esther, does not contain a single mention of God, another indication that, on the surface, we were (and usually are) totally ignorant of what’s really going on around us.

Purim leads the way to Pesach, just a month later.  In fact, the very day after Purim we’re instructed to start learning the laws of Pesach, rules telling us how to prepare our homes, our Seder and the other observances of the festival–a procedure we’ve already performed many times. You’d assume we already know the whole process and, at most, we just need a little brush-up. But no, we’re instructed to start at the very beginning as if we’re completely new at this. If we’ve actually observed Purim properly, all our previous “knowledge” about Pesach is seen for what it is, next to nothing.

Pesach celebrates our freedom, and little enslaves us more than our own arrogance and preconceptions. This is one of the reasons I have so little patience with those on the extremes of our tradition. The militant atheist who declare that there is no mystery, that everything can be known through empirical science, that mere human beings really can be the masters of all knowledge, has eaten poisoned fruit, indeed, from the עץ הדעת טוב ורע, Etz HaDa’at Tov v’Rah, the Tree of Knowledge, Good and Evil.  Likewise, the sanctimonious, self-appointed “guardian of the faith” who believes that he is the final and eternal word in halacha, Jewish practice, requiring that everyone conform to his radically-limited understanding, is equally arrogant, having eaten his very own variety of the poisoned fruit.

סור מרע ועשה טוב, Sur May’Rah v’Oseh Tov, Turn away from Evil and do Good, a verse from Psalm 34 read every Shabbat and Festival morning, is an oft-interpreted Torah teaching. One thing it tells us is that the first step of “doing right” is realizing and rejecting the “wrong” we’ve been committed to. The word רע, rah, evil, is spelled “ר”-“ע”, raish-eyin.  The root of the word which means knowledge is דע, dah, “ד”-“ע”, dalet-eyin. Not only do they share the letter ע, eyin, the difference between the “ד” for דע and “ר” for רע is a tiny stroke of ink, extending the top line just as little to the right.

Perhaps, emphasized on Purim, we also need to סור מדע, sur may-dah, turn away from the evil of thinking we already know everything.  How do we fill an already filled glass? The solution is deceptively obvious, but it’s a lot easier if we’re willing to admit that what’s already in the glass isn’t so precious that we can’t afford to let go of it.

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