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Judaism: Purim Celebrates Reversing Assimilation

Exploring the word Shushan, leads to an interesting conclusion.
Published: Saturday, March 15, 2014 8:39 PM


Inadvertent Slide
Purim celebrates the reversal of assimilation. The Talmud teaches that well before Haman, Jews in Persia had begun a slide into assimilation. There were Jews in the highest enclaves of commerce and government.[1] They were admitted into the most exclusive social clubs. And when the Persian king, Achashverosh, gave a party, Jews were naturally on the guest list.[2]

The royal caterers served Kosher food and Jews were free to observe their dietary laws,[3] yet Mordechai, the ranking Jewish rabbi in Persia, cautioned Jews against accepting the invitation. He reasoned that natural social boundaries are important to foster pride in distinct cultural identities and these would erode at a one-hundred-and-eighty day party.

To Mordechai’s way of thinking, minority populations must work to preserve their cultural and religious identities, lest they be swallowed by the majority. They must interface with the majority, but never integrate. It might take a year, decades or generations, but unchecked, long term integration, leads inexorably to assimilation.

No one sets out to erode religious or cultural pride. No Jew seeks to deliberately stamp out our traditions. It occurs inadvertently. Little by little, boundaries fade, divisions disappear and identity is lost.

This was the case for the Jews in Persia before the story of Purim. They were by no means assimilated, but the process had begun and, but for Mordechai and a handful of his followers, no one took notice.

Forget
Just for fun I explored the name Shushan, Persia’s capital city, to see if it contained a message. I tried the numeric value of the Hebrew letters that spell Shushan, but failed to decipher a message. I then divided that number by two and hit pay dirt.

The four letters that comprise the name Shushan amount to a numeric value of 656. When you divide that number by two, you get 328. If you translate 328 back into Hebrew, you get the letters, Shin, Chaf and Chet, which spell the Hebrew word Shachach, to forget. In other words, if you forget two or more times, you reach the Shushan state.

The spiritual state that characterized the Jews of Shushan, the state of assimilation, is reached through a process of forgetfulness. We set out to broaden our horizons by establishing contacts, friendships and familiarities with differing religions and cultures. We don’t intend to erode our affiliation with our own heritage, but immersed in the thrill of discovery we might on occasion neglect a single Shabbat or Passover. The first time it occurs we feel guilty, but by the second or third time, it becomes habit.

If we engage in the process of forgetfulness, we reach the state that our ancestors reached in Shushan. Though we never set out to reach that stage, we are responsible for having reached it. Our sages taught that we are responsible for the Torah knowledge that we forget because forgetfulness results from idleness. When we choose to sit idly, rather than study, we are responsible for the consequences of our choice. The same applies to assimilation.[4] When we choose to pursue foreign cultures, rather than our own, we are responsible for our resultant assimilation.

Return
Responsible means response-able. We are able to respond to the reality of our assimilation by reversing it, which is precisely what Mordechai set out to do.

After Haman announced his intention to annihilate the Jews, Mordechai rallied the nation to renew their commitment. Throughout the year of impending doom, despite their continued contacts with the Persian community, no Jew, even inadvertently, slipped away from Jewish faith and practice.[5]

When a husband forgets his wife’s birthday, she is justifiably upset. Though he didn’t deliberately set out to forget, if he had really cared, he would have remembered. So too in faith. When we strive to be true to our faith, we become intensely aware of our behavior and don’t trip up even by mistake.

The story is told of Rabbi Nochum from Chernobyl, one of the early Chassidic Masters, who decided one day to allow his evil inclination a single victory.  He set out to commit a sin and when he heard people gossiping he joined the group. As he approached, a fellow shouted from across the room, “Don’t gossip, it’s a sin.” As often occurs in these situations, someone in the group retorted that to speak ill of this individual is in fact a Mitzvah. When the Rabbi heard this, he stepped away. He was in the business of committing a sin that day, not a Mitzvah.

So went his day, from one sin opportunity to the next. Every time, he set out to commit a sin, it was somehow recast in the guise of a Mitzvah and he was spared. When one is truly attached, heart and soul, to G-d, one does not trip up even deliberately. How much more so inadvertently.

Response
Our sages taught that G-d responds to our behavior measure for measure. He treats us precisely as we treat Him. In the case of Purim, this is astoundingly accurate.[6]

Haman chose the date for our annihilation by throwing lots. He didn’t set out to kill us in the month of Adar, the lot just happened to fall on that month. When it did, Haman rejoiced because Moses passed away in Adar and Haman took it as a sign that he would succeed in his terrible design.

Just as the Jew didn’t deliberately set out to assimilate, but allowed it to happen inadvertently, so didn’t Haman set out to choose an auspicious day for his terrible act, but found it inadvertently.

As it turned out, Haman miscalculated because Moses was also born in the month of Adar. The month that was ostensibly bad for the Jews, turned out to work in our favor. Just as our ancestors reversed course from assimilation to enthusiastic faith, so was their misfortune reversed. Just as they worked to prevent even inadvertent slip ups so did G-d prevent the inadvertent fortune of Haman’s lottery. The date Haman chose turned out to be one of good fortune and protection.

Sources:

[1] Likutei Diburim: 371b. Note also Mordechai and Esther’s post in the government.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah; 12a.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ethics of Our Fathers, 3: 8.

[5] Torah Ohr, Megilas Esther: 91b.

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah: 12b.