Coercion at Mount Sinai leads to Joy on Purim!
March 18, 2022
By Mike Steklof, Ed.D.

Recently my colleague Miriam Abramovich shared in a Jewish Thought that when Adar (the month of Purim) arrives, we increase with joy (Ta’anit 29a). But why are Adar and Purim such a joyful time? I learned one explanation while studying at SVARA a traditionally radical yeshiva dedicated to the serious study of Talmud through the lens of queer experiences.

We read in Torah that after the Jewish people leave Egypt and are waiting to receive the Torah, “… Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet G-d; and they stood at the bottom of the mountain.” (Exodus: 19:17)  In Talmud, Shabbat 88a, Rav Avdimi, son of Chama, son of Hasa, notes in the literal meaning of this verse, that the people were standing beneath the mountain, and he wonders how this can be? He interprets this by saying that G-d turned Mount Sinai upside down, held it over their heads and said, “if you accept my teachings all will be good and if you don’t accept my teachings this will be your burial ground”.

Upon learning this teaching, my first reaction was, WHAT!!?? Why would G-d coerce the Jewish people into accepting their teachings? So, I kept diving deeper into the Talmud.

Rav Acha, son of Yakov, who heard Rav Avdimi’s teachings, had a similar reaction.  He stated in Talmud that if this is what happened at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people’s acceptance of G-d’s teachings is invalid, as they were coerced into accepting it. This idea caused much debate among the wise scholars of the time, until Rava closed the debate saying, “even if the Jewish people were coerced into accepting G-d’s teachings, it does not matter, as we learn during the story of Purim that “the Jewish people affirmed and they accepted.” He believed this meant that they affirmed in the time of Purim, that which they had already accepted—AKA G-d’s teachings at Mount Sinai.

So, what does it mean that the Jewish people re-accepted G-d’s teaching in the time of Purim?  When the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai, they were so overwhelmed by the experience that saying, ‘no, we do not accept your teachings’, did not seem like a viable option. During the Purim story, in a moment where it would have been easy to turn their backs on their Jewish roots (when G-d’s presence felt less present in their lives), they, “affirmed what they had already accepted”.

The Jewish people had to wait until they were in exile, during a time when there was no mountain and no overwhelming presence of G-d, to truly accept G-d’s teachings.

Back to the opening Talmud text, “when Adar (the month of Purim) arrives, we increase with joy” (Ta’anit 29a) and the question of why the month of Purim is to be joyful, Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt, poet, chaplain, and spiritual director, says, “Adar invites “us” to make things better by cultivating joy. Not by ignoring what’s hard or pretending it away or papering it over with a happy-clappy veneer — that’s called spiritual bypass, and it doesn’t serve us well. Adar invites us to cultivate the ability to feel joy even as we also hold what’s painful or hard in our lives.”

As we learn from the Jewish people during their time of great difficulty in the story of Purim, so too can we learn to embrace joy in the month of Adar, even when we encounter pain and challenges in our lives.

Mike Steklof, Ed.D., is Director of Jewish Experience at the Buffalo Jewish Federation.

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