Friday, March 18, 2011

Breaking Form

I spent last Shabbat with the new family my step-daughter married into. It was Shabbat Chatan, the first Sabbath after the wedding, and we were together in a hotel in Netanya. The chatan and his family are Sefardim, originally from Tunis. The whole of the Shabbat experience, from davening to food was couched in a tradition I did not know. The experience in synagogue, in particular, felt very alien. For me it might almost have been another religion.
Yet on reflection, after the weekend, I realized that the differences between my Ashkenaz service and that of the Sefardim is not very much in the content of the prayers. The prayer are for the most part similar. What is different is the way the prayers are recited. Sefardim do alot of communal chanting, whereas Askenazim tend to say prayers to themselves. The melodies of Sefardim are middle-eastern, in the minor key. Ashkenazim use melodies of the West, in the major mode.

So while the experience in prayer felt so foreign it was not, in fact, that much other than what I have known. The differences were of the form, not the substance. Yet, it seems, form alone can make a difference so vital that it can feel totally other.

I was thinking how this thought rings true for that which we see in the parsha of this week, that of Tzav. Here in the Torah portion there is emphasis on the clothes worn by the 'kohen', priest and the 'kohen gadol', high priest. When the instructions are given for consecrating the priests they are told they are to be wearing their special clothes during the special sprinkling. Indeed even the clothes are to be made holy. The clothes are so important that a kohen who serves in the Temple without being fully clothed in the priestly garments has a severe penalty and his service is invalid. Without his clothes he is called a 'zar', a non-kohen.

We see from all of the above that what we wear has profound significance. Indeed all of the trappings of our life are relevant for defining us. As tradition taught "'chitzoniyot m'orair p'neemiyot'", "the outside influences the inside of a person". Whether it be the way people daven or the clothes the kohen wears, or for that matter the way we dress or the style of our lives, style has substance! The form of our lives shapes the substance of who we are! In essence, we become how we live, how we look, how we act!

Its no wonder the davening of the Sefaradim felt so different despite a similarity of content. The form of the prayers is like the clothes for the words. Clothes, form, matter, and makes things different of essence!

And yet here we are on the eve of Purim. Already the streets have been full of children in costume. Even adults often dress in disguise on Purim. And the custom seems to have a basis in halacha. There are rabbinic opinions that allow men to dress as women on Purim, something forbidden all year long by Torah injunction. Yet we might wonder why. Did we not just talk about the importance of the externals, that they influence and shape who we are. How is it on Purim we are not only permitted, we are encouraged to dress in ways not true to ourselves and often as characters whose behavior we would never want to emulate?

I believe the answer is that on Purim we mark a holiday that goes counter the norm. The Jews of Persia lived in an environment where all the externals said a renewal of Judaism was impossible. They were in exile, the first exile, the Temple destroyed. They lived amongst a hedonistic people with a hedonistic king, as the Megilla describes. Everything around them mitigated against a revival of the Jewish spirit. Yet despite it all the Jews of the diaspora, facing extermination, experience a total renewal of faith. The Sages describe the events of Purim as a second acceptance of Torah, the first being at Sinai. Only they point out, this acceptance, the one that happened at the time of Purim was greater. Here the Jews accepted the Torah from love of G-d. At Sinai, yes, they accepted, but they were, as tradition teaches,in fact coerced.

Purim is the holiday of Jewish renewal that takes place when the context in which our People lived said it would be impossible. Purim is the one time where the 'pneemiyut' broke through the 'chitzoniyut', where who we were at our core broke through the constraints of the form in which we were living.

Every day can't be Purim. But on Purim, in dressing in costume, we say that true though it normally is that the clothes make the man or woman, on this day we are more than the clothes we wear. We can dress as whomever, yet we will remain ourselves. No externals will compromise the integrity of our true being.

The message of both the Parsha and of Purim is that while we need to be careful to create an environment for ourselves that is in synch with our purpose and nature, after all the clothes of our lives indeed matter, yet if we find ourselves ensnared by a context foreign and antithetical to who we are we can still overcome and rise above it.
Purim teaches us that the though the form shapes us it does not condemn us. No matter the circumstances we find ourselves in we can yet find spiritual renewal and rebirth.

Shabbat Shalom
Chag Purim Samaiach

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