Rav Shagar’s Purim Derashot – English Summaries [and Notes]

 

Pur Hu HaGoral

[This is the small book of Rav Shagar’s derashot on Purim. It’s one of the earlier works that was published, and thus is unfortunately not nearly as well put together as some of the more recent works,]

 

Introduction

[There’s not a lot to the introduction but it’s worth noting because Rav Shagar himself wrote it, as opposed to many of his books that were published posthumously.]

In these drashot Amalek is seen as representative of the duality of human perception, and to some degree of human perception write large. Thus there are derashot that talk about the removal of all human categories.

Part of the goal of the book is to create a new religious language. In this Rav Shagar turned to kabbalistic texts because they provide a lot of room and material for interpretation. These texts around Purim deal with a lot of questions of human existence like providence, the contingency of existence, etc. Hence the midrashim that invoke Kohelet in context of Purim.

In the rest of the book, Amalek is seen as representing a Nietzschean Will to Power, there is a discussion of Hasidic join, and a lot of Rebbe Nahman.

The epilogue and the derashah on the canonization of the Megillah contradict the usage of “Aught” and “Naught” [translations of “יש” and “אין” following M. Fishbane’s “Sacred Attunement] in the rest of the derashot, where Amalek is connected with “Aught,” while in those two places Amalek is the disconnect between “Aught” and “Naught” and there is an “Absolute Aught” [“יש המוחלט”] beyond the “Naught.” These are essentially starting a new discussion.

[Practically, the contradiction is mainly whether the goal is to get to the “Naught” or the “Absolute Aught.”]

 

Between Remembrance and Remembrance – Shabbat and Amalek

1.

Kohelet is bothered by the arbitrary nature of Chance, which the midrash sees as being due to the equivalence of Shabbat and Amalek: Bnei Yisrael are commanded to remember both. The midrash explains that one is a remembrance of emptiness and one of fullness, of meaning. This doesn’t solve Kohelet’s ultimate problem, however, which is that everything is eventually forgotten in eternity. Kohelet would just ignore this but for the reflectivity of Amalek, derived from the primordial sin. He cannot forget his finitude. Through drinking on Purim we get out of this reflective state, similar to the one found in the state of remembering to forget Amalek.

2.

Kohelet was bothered by who would sit on his throne after him, by the possibility of a fool on the throne of God, which represents Divine providence. This is Amalek which keeps us from seeing the Divinity of providence, the reflective duality that divides between the Creator and the creation.

3.

Shabbat is also connected to the throne of God in the liturgy. Shabbat is the symbol of God as Creation and Ruler of the world, reminding us that God controls everything. הכל בידי שמים. Shabbat reminds us not to get stuck in a causal mindset. When Bnei Yisrael didn’t keep shabbat by the manna, Amalek came and attacked them, due to how Bnei Yisrael didn’t see that everything is in the hands of Heaven.

Amalek is overcome by drunkenness, by getting beyond the divide between the “Rest” (מנוחה) of Shabbat and the “Work” (מלאכה) of the week. Thus there is no prohibition of work on Purim. On Shabbat, wine is drunk according to the measurement of Kiddush; On Purim there is no measure.

4.

The midrash sees no difference between the remembrance of Amalek and Shabbat other than fullness, meaningfulness, as opposed to emptiness. These flow from a lack of knowledge, from that which cannot be known. But this itself can bring a person to self-acceptance (קבלת העצמי). [Self-acceptance is an important theme in Rav Shagar’s writings, one which will come up in a later derashah in these summaries.]

The difference is essentially about memory. Memory is the Divine eternity; things pass out of this world but exist there forever. There, Amalek exists as a conspicuous absence, while Shabbat is a Divine fullness.

This difference exists beyond the world, beyond thought and reason, accessible by the drinking of Purim.

 

The Knowing That Doesn’t Know

Chance, Fate, Providence, and Divine Chance are four ways of reading the Megillah, with different parts lending themselves to the different hermeneutics. This is the essential war of Amalek and Bnei Yisrael, over the question of God’s control of the world. Chance is about possibility. It could be any which way. Fate is about necessity. It could not be any other way. Fate receives its sense of arbitrariness by virtue of having no reason. Thus is the Divine Will. Providence is well reasoned, coming not from the Divine Will but from the Divine Wisdom. Divine Chance comes from the Divine Infinitude, beyond all possible reason, where the possible becomes essential. Fate is God’s Will, Providence from God’s Wisdom; Beyond and combining both is the knowing that doesn’t know. This is Divine Chance as a form of providence, the ultimate defeat of Amalek, who strive to create Chance the possible. In the Divine Infinite, the monistic reality, the possible becomes the essential, Will and Wisdom are united, there is no separation between chance and providence.

There is thus no meaning to the question of why something is the way it is. Everything exists as it is, without any external, transcendent, justification or cause, simply out of the Divine Freedom. A person can reach this level in drunkenness, beyond the human realm of reason and justification. Accepting the chance of the Divine Source, the unknown which is not an absence.

[To some degree, when working with a Kabbalistic concept of the Divine Infinite, any and all ideas like “wisdom”, “providence,” “good,” are limiting factors, attempts to work within a very specific, very human, framework. The Divine Infinite includes this framework, perhaps, but it is so much more than this framework, and thus it must, by definition, manifest as “chance,” as that which cannot be fit into the normal framework.]

 

Amalek as the Will to Power

Haman attempted a Nietzschean reach into the infinitude that precedes the Good/Evil binary by way of the casting lots. Thus there is a parallel “Haman of Holiness” (המן דקדושה), reaching beyond current structures and values of Judaism into the infinitude for the sake of innovation/renewal (חידוש). [All this so far is based on various writings of the Baal HaTanya.]

Eradicating Amalek is the ultimate realization of the subject-self of Israel [Rav Hutner]. This is very similar to the making ultimate of the self that Haman was negatively attempting. The difference is the subject’s position in regards to God. For Haman, the self essentially replaces God as Ultimate; With the eradication of Amalek, Israel remains humble before God, though the Haman of Holiness goes further than that.

[I’m not convinced the combination of Rav Hutner and the Baal HaTanya works as Rav Shagar clearly thought it did.]

 

The Mystery of Disguise

1.

Yaakov had to deceive Yitzchak because the only way to succeed in this world, the World of Falsehood (עלמא דשקרא), is through deception [Rav Tsadok]. Thus Yaakov disguised himself as Esav. However, Esav disguised himself as the Yaakov, the man of the bet midrash, by asking his father about halakhic minutia [Midrash Tanhuma]. Esav’s disguise is not a conscious one, however. He is not intentionally deceiving his father so much as being inauthentic to himself. When Yaakov disguises himself as Esav, he is knowingly embracing inauthentic religiosity, as participating in a shared religious discourse, in a shared set of rituals, in the only way to function and be understood in this world.

[This represents a turn from many of Rav Shagar’s other writings which have a strong emphasis on personal truth and authenticity. It suggests that this derashah may be from his later, more postmodern, thought. He seems to have become more caught up in and embraced the way we can never really succeed in becoming unreflective, always living in alienation from ourselves. But as these derashot are not dated, it’s hard to know definitively.]

2.

Drinking on Purim conveys the Divine abundance to the negative aspects of reality (סטרא אחרא), in an intentionally minor and unconscious way [Arizal]. It does this by connecting us to the a-logical Divine infinitude where Good/Bad is meaningless.

3.

Whereas Yom Kippur (יום הכיפורים) is an attempt to escape this world into the Infinite, Purim (פורים) is an attempt to live with the Infinite in this world. That’s why Purim is the holier day and Yom Kippur is only “like Purim” (כפורים).

4.

Bnei Yisrael are inherently finite, as are all things including the Torah, but the God will sustain Bnei Yisrael infinitely. That is why the lot fell on Adar,  which as the last month of the year signifies transience and finitude, which is why Haman thought he could destroy the Jews. Hence the only Purim and Yom Kippur, which point to finitude, will remain in the messianic era [Based on the Maharal]. All senses of Good/Evil, all rites and ritual structures are just constructs of a certain historical period. On Purim we live outside of history via carnivalesque drinking and behavior.

[The shared concept in all of these sections is that the world of our experience and cognition is a very limited construct, especially when held up against the Divine Infinite. Within that framework, everything necessarily functions according to rules and languages, systems of signifiers that do not apply beyond the realm of our experience and cognition. Living with an awareness of this is the experience of Yaakov Avinu as described in the first piece. The next two focus on Purim as time of somehow experiencing this unlimitedness within the bounds of our world. The last piece applies this idea to the realm of history, and says that the world of our experience, guided by the laws and languages of the Torah, only exists within certain historical bounds, beyond which it simply does not apply.]

 

They Accepted it Anew in the Days of Aḥashverosh

The Torah was forced on the Jews at Har Sinai, creating an internal, oedipal, process where a person is bound to the Torah even as, or even by virtue of the fact that, they rebel against it [Based on the Maharal]. The Torah could not have been given otherwise, due to the alienation and reflective duality that have characterized humanity since the primordial sin, where rebellious transgression shattered the unselfconscious unity humanity lived in. This state will only be overcome in the Messianic Era, not by a return to the unselfconscious state but to a state that maintains both the reflective duality and the unselfconscious unity [based on Rav Simha Bunim of Peshischa]. The Torah will be revealed as the very nature and will of humanity. We can experience this state here and now through the drunkenness of Purim.

 

The Composition of the Megillah and the Redemption of Purim

The megillah is something between Written and Oral Torah. Its inclusion in the written canon was dreaminess and justified via a derashah, the classic mechanism of the Oral Torah. Meanwhile, the megillah text becomes a source for derashot and has halakhic rules regarding שירטוט and תפירה, similar to a Torah scroll. It, of all post-Mosaic prophecy, will outlast this historical period into the Messianic Era. [Each of these points is based on a different midrash or halakhic source.]

“Esther is the end of all miracles.” Specifically, those miracles that have the absoluteness and objectivity that requires being written down. Writing is confined to the realm of the signifier, the absolute and concrete. Speech gives the audience access to the speaker, the subjective signified.

Olam HaZeh, the period when Amalek reigns, is characterized by a dissonance between the concrete world and the hidden Divine. Thus the defeat of Amalek in Megillat Esther is the revelation that what seems like Chance is actually Divine decree, or, on a higher level, Divine Chance. This is the absolute redemption. This is the manifestation of the Absolute Aught, beyond the Naught that bounds the Aught.

This is achieve when faith, normally subjective, becomes objectified in the faith of the other. When you believe in the freedom of the other, qua subject, you can have a conversation. This conversation allows for the presence of the Absolute Aught, the true subject, from beyond the Naught of the transcendence of the subject. This becomes objectified by the other as alienated, concrete, signification.

[I would connect this to Michael Wyschogrod’s critique of Martin Buber in The Body of Faith. Buber sees God as the Eternal Thou, always a subject and never an object. Wyschogrod argues that being real and present requires have a personality, a describable aspect. It requires being at times not a subject, but an object.

On a practical level, this would seemingly look like accepting the fact that you are, in whatever way, an object, not just a subject. “Accepting the self” in this sense is actually a broad and important theme throughout Rav Shagar’s writings.

However, all of this makes sense as an explanation of the idea as it shows up here. In a separata derashah, “Epilogue – Faith: Aught or Naught?”, the idea is more clearly laid out as being about intersubjectivity. See the note there for more.]

So too the Megillah becomes an object via the attention of the Sages, turning from speech to text due to the gaze of the other.

[In an intersubjective sense, the Sages took it to be objectively true that the Megillah was a part of the canon and should be written down, and thus it was so for them.]

Openness to the other is beyond thought and reason, and is achieved in the drunkenness of Purim.

 

Sparks of Fire – The Joy of Purim

The essence of Purim is reversal. “ונהפוך הוא.” “סופן נפוץ בתחילתן.” The joy of Purim is not the absence of sadness but occurs in the presence of it specifically. Whereas the joy of the Holidays is based on transcendent meaning and life-fulfillment, the joy of Purim is based on the Divine Infinite, which is beyond the created order, and this is often manifest in pessimism and in hard time. In fact, the highest infinite Divine is beyond such categories, and specifically is revealed in that which ignores and violates normal religious expectations. Hence the Megillah represents the highest level of the Divine, even though it ends with the Jews as subject of Aḥashverosh and it does not contain Divine names because Divine names are part of the normal symbolic order of Divine manifestation and Jewish victory is the normal Divine manifestation in History. The ecstasy of Purim flows from the recognition of the conditional nature of all our normal conceptions, nullifies before the Divine. This ecstasy is beyond both order and chaos, both “הדר קבלוה” and “עד דלא ידע.”

 

Breslav-Style Derashot

[These next three derashot are in various ways based on Rav Shagar’s deep relationship with the texts of Rebbe Nahman of Breslav. The first is an explication of “The Story of the Palace,” Rebbe Nahman’s version of a parable that, as Rav Shagar points out, is found in Arabian Nights. The second is a “purim-torah” that is written in the style of Lekutei Moharan, and is clearly humorous while simultaneous teaching ideas similar to those found throughout the other derashot. The third is a story in the style of Rabbe Nahman’s stories, but composed by Rav Shagar himself.]

 

The Story of the Palace – The Joke as Nullification of the Aught

[This is just Rav Shagar’s explanation of the story, not the story itself.]

“Eros and Thanatos walk hand in hand.”In “The Story of The Palace” (סיפור הפלטין) the hero mimics what he is supposed to do, in place of actually doing it, and yet is rewarded as if he had done it properly. This is in contrast to the original ending of the story where the hero was rewarded with imitation money, a fitting recompense. Rebbe Nahman saw himself as a failed tsadik, a clown and a fake. The task recognizes the falsity in his existence, and in being conscious of this expresses the Divine. Never is this more true than in the fictitious tsadik. Recognizing the fake, false, nature of institutional religion is the nullification of the Aught (ביטול היש) that is inherent in humor and jokes. This עבודה is not simple or easy, however, which is why the joker gets paid as much as the hard worker, as his work is at least as hard. [Rav Shagar makes a similar point about the difficulty of truly accepting the fictitious nature of your self/reality in an essay on Rav Tsadok’s approach to Teshuva in his book “שובי נפשי.”]

 

“Give Liquor to the Perishing, and Wine to the Bitter-hearted.” – Purim “Torah”

[This jumble of sources and verses who’s off not just Rav Shagar’s breadth of knowledge and familiarity with Rav Nahman’s style, but also his creativity in the linguistic play of connecting the various sources and ideas.

What follows is my own understanding of what is going on behind the various connections and ideas, many of which are far from explicit.]

The absence of God in suffering (ייסורים), Naught, is found in pulling away from Torah (ביטול תורה), which paradoxically is keeping it (ביטולה היא קיומה). This is the incredibly high level where you merit freedom (חירות/חופש). This level of Naught is when the Torah is hidden (מוסתר), creating the situation for the revelation of the mysteries of Torah (סתרי תורה). When Yaakov dressed as Esav, this was the hiddenness of the mysteries of Torah. This disguising (התחפשות) lays Esav bare (נחשף) while freeing (חופש)Yaakov. This was the sin of Bnei Yisrael at the Golden Calf, with which they covered (מסכה) themselves, “hiding” from God. The correction (תיקון) for this was the Keruvim whose wings cover, hide, the Torah, just as Amalek is a wing covering God’s presence. All this is the עבודה of the אובד ה׳, who serves God without intellect, via ביטול תורה.

 

A Story of Aught and Naught that were Reversed

[This is another piece that shows off Rav Shagar’s averseness in the style of Rebbe Nahman and the sources of the Jewish tradition. Here it is in the style of Rebbe Nahman’s stories, and thus my interpretation, which follows, is somewhat tentative.]

A unified consciousness exists until it is suggested that things could be different. This creates alienation and estrangement. A person attempts to overcome this by empty praxis, by wholeheartedly devoting themselves to a totally external, heteronomous, identity, hoping that it turns out to be who they are. As a rule, this does not work. But sometimes, in a moment of unselfconsciousness, the praxis becomes a revelation of the inner self. “אור דאבא שמאיר לנוקבא.”

 

Epilogue – Faith: Aught or Naught?

The Hasidic reading of “היש ה׳ בקרבנו אם אין?” is that the Israelites were asking if there faith was on the level of Aught or Naught. Naught means totally subjective faith, which maintains the subject/object divide that is represented by Amalek. It is conscious of the conditioned nature of existence, bounded by Naught. In the Naught, everything is possible, including faith.

Above the Naught is the Absolute Aught. This is formed by dialogue,by “intersubjectivity.” Faith in the Faith of the Other provides both subjects with objective status. Only thus is Amalek overcome.

[Rav Shagar here essentially goes over the concluding idea of the essay “The Composition of the Megillah and the Redemption of Purim,” but he adds a twist that was unmentioned in that essay (unfortunately, this collection of derashot does not include the original dates of the individual derashot, so it’s impossible to tell if the change is due to an actual change in Rav Shagar’s thought or if the two derashot should be understood in light of each other). Here, Rav Shagar chalks the newly-acquired objective status to “intersubjectivity.” This is a term from Phenomenology that essentially refers to when two or more individuals take something to be objective within a certain framework. “We take these truths to be self evident..” So starts the US constitution. In those words, the authors laid down the rules for US civil discourse, wherein the ideas that follow that opening are taken to be objectively true, regardless of their status outside that discourse. So too in a conversation between two individuals, the fact of each of the individuals existing as a free subject capable of thought and belief is taken, at least implicitly, to be objectively true, otherwise the conversation isn’t really happening.]

 

She’arit Emunah

[This is one of the most recent collections of Rav Shagar’s derashot to be published, with derashot for all of the holidays of the year. Below is a summary of the derashah for Purim.]

 

The Jest of the Megillah

[This derashah was given in the wake of the decision to unilaterally disengage from the Gaza Strip, and Rav Shagar references current events not just throughout the footnotes, but also in the body of the derashah itself, in the conclusion of the appendix.]

The Megillah is a book of satire and parody, aimed at Aḥashverosh more than at Haman, and most especially at Law. Aḥashverosh gets legal advisors to resolve a marital spat, and enacts a totally pointless law in the process. The dark absurdity of the parody is present in the way everyone follows along with the law, no matter how evil.  The parody comes from despair. The ability to laugh at all this flows not from the salvation but from the way God is seen to be in control. This does not erase the very real human experience of fear and suffering, however; it ultimately only heightens its absurdity. This is the בטחון that doesn’t assume that everything will go well, in fact often the opposite, God’s Will is not logical and human expectations are meaningless in relation to it. The reason-less Divine Will is met by a similarly reason-less human response. “ככה”.

Appendix: The Law and the Jew

Aḥashverosh’s servants are bothered by the fact that Mordechai is a Jew, because Jews are beholden to a different law and authority, and thus undermine the law. This is the root of anti-Semitism. Mordechai participates in the law and saves the life of the sovereign, but he also refuses to bow to Haman, directly violating the law of the King. This is disloyal loyalty. he’s not simply a lawbreaker. So too Esther, who is generally obedient, but comes before the king in violation of the Law. Vashti, in contrast, is simply a lawbreaker. This is why Haman made a law to kill all of the Jews instead of just executing Mordechai. The law fights via legislation. the Megillah thus reveals the violence inherent in the absolute nature of legislation. It is self-justifying. It must be followed by virtue of its existence, simply because it is the law. Legislation is a more egregious act of violence than breaking the law.

[The raw pathos exposed here is quite telling regarding the Religious Zionist community writ large. Rav Shagar was probably towards the left end of the RZ political spectrum in his lifetime, and yet the last few sentences could have been written by the “hilltop youth” of our own day. This is a community (who feel) ravaged and betrayed by their government. Despite this, Rav Shagar’s responses to the disengagement, found throughout his writings from the period, display a vastly different response than many parts of the RZ community today. This contrast is damning, as it highlights that the more morally questionable responses are in no way unavoidable for the responsible individuals.]

 

A Time of Freedom

[This is the book of Rav Shagar’s derashot and essays for Pesaḥ, but the below essay discusses Purim as well.]

 

“Engraved on the Tablets” – Between Purim and Pesaḥ

Pesaḥ celebrates the time when we were freed from egypt, and as such raises all kinds of important questions about freedom.

Sartre presents the problem of freedom as twofold: 1. There is no essential nature. A person most often is mindless. 2. “Man is sentenced to liberty.” Man must choose, but has no way to do that, given the constructed or conditional nature of all values. All man can do is flip a coin.

Rav Kook saw Freedom as returning to one’s essential self. Freedom as the ability to live according to internal, existential truth. It’s a function of identity, of who you are.

Rav Kook can actually be read as supporting a Sartrean freedom to create your own identity. You have an identity but you have the freedom to choose it or not. This is the real meaning of Brit and Devotion. This makes the Brit less the traumatic thing you’re born into and instead something you choose wholeheartedly, by choosing to identify with that which is already your identity. This ability creates true happiness and meaning.

[The footnotes point out that Rav Shagar explains Rav Kook differently in his essay on conceptions of Freedom that appears in Kelim Shevurim and then in an updated form in Luḥot U’Shivrei HaLuḥot. I think the reading here is a little forced. Rav Kook had a very strong concept of the inner essence of a person.]

It’s possible this is what Rebbe Nahman alludes to in a clipped and cryptic passage: Pesaḥ represents freedom as the ability to express our essential selves. Purim represents the freedom to choose our selves. Thus Purim is a necessary step on the road to Pesaḥ.

[Rav Shagar does not clarify the connection to Purim, but presumably this is related to one or both of two things: 1. The wearing of costumes on Purim may be taken to symbolize the ability of choose/craft and embrace a new identity. 2. Many of Rav Shagar’s derashot on Purim have a focus on the ability to get beyond the current construct, the framework we are currently working from within, into the Divine Infinite, and from there to see the possibilities of, and perhaps even to create, a new framework.

Meanwhile, Pesah occupies a very clear spot in Rav Shagar’s thought as a moment of the transferring and engendering of tradition. It’s a time when families gather together to participate in tradition, to discuss and create their link to the past and the future. It is serving in this derashah to symbolize the ability to accept one’s inner essence, which one has inherited from their surroundings and family, and to express freedom from within that framework.]

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