Monday, March 8, 2010

Litvishe Purim, Chasidishe Purim

I am of mixed Ashkenazi descent. My maternal grandparents hailed from Poland-Ukraine where the gefilte fish is  sweet, a noodle pudding is called "kigel" and most of the people were followers of the chassidic Rebbes. My father's side were Litvaks, that is they came from the land of Lithuania-Latvia north of Poland on the Baltic sea.They like their fish spicy, they say "kugel" and they were Misnagdim (opponents of the chassidim). The Litvaks were known to be serious, studious and sceptical while the chassidim were pictured as being lighthearted and carefree and somewhat naive in their adoration of their Rebbes. 

This year on Purim I was able to get in touch with both sides of my spiritual and cultural heritage.On the Fast of Esther we had a guest speaker at the kollel where I learn. He was the mashgiach ruchani (spiritual mentor) of one of the leading Litvishe yeshivas near us. He gave a mussar schmues (ethical discourse) whose central theme was that Purim is a special time for spiritual reflection and repentance. He used a play on words-Purim Kippurim. Just as the gates of repentance are open on Yom Kippur so they are open on Purim. 

The salvation of the Jewish people in the time of Mordecai and Esther and the punishment of Haman and our enemies comes to emphasize how much we are dependent on the grace of God in order to survive in a hostile world. He said that we must reflect on the question of why the Jews of Persia were threatened by a holocaust. How did they incur the wrath of God? 

The Megilla tells us that the Jews of Shushan despaired of salvation and did not believe that God would bring them out of the exile.This even though the return to Zion with Ezra had already begun with the proclamation of  Cyrus.The Temple had yet to be rebuilt and the new king Achashverosh was hostile to the Jews. When the Jews were invited to the kings inaugural feast they did not even protest when the holy Temple vessels were displayed and desecrated. It was only because of the great sacrifice of Mordecai and Esther and the fact that they gathered the Jewish people together in a moment of unity to plead for Gods mercy, that the decree was annulled."And the Jews had light and joy and gladness and honor". 

He continued by explaining the mitzva of drinking on Purim "until one can't tell the diffeerence between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai." This is to be taken as an allegory. All year we must act with reason and control our feelings and imagination.On Purim with the help of wine we can let our imagination reign. Reason alone cannot explain the Purim story.We must use the power of imagination to see how God who is not mentioned explicitly in the Megillah worked behind the veil of seemingly natural events to save his people. 

It was with this somewhat somber, Mussardik messaage that I started the Purim holiday. The next day I went to the tisch (holiday table) of Rav Avraham Rubin, a Slonim chassid and spiritual leader of our neighborhood shul. He sat at the head of a long table, decked out in a large fur shtreimel and a long brocaded caftan. People told stories of how the rebbe's blessing on Purim worked wonders. By virtue of being a neighbor I was honored with a seat at the table close to Rav Rubin. A large beaker of wine was poured for the Rav. He blessed it  drank from it and passed it around the table. A giganic baked salmon was set before him he ate a piece and the rest was passed around. Fat baked chickens were brought to the table which the Rav tore apart and handed out to those sitting at the table.Others crowded around him trying to get a portion that he blessed. The atmosphere was joyful and even boisterus. Every few minutes someone raised a glass lechaim and the Rav said" a freilichen Purim". There was wine, brandy and 100 proof slivovitz..Here the drinking wasn't allegorical and sining took the place of spiritual reflection.

Which is the right path? Litvishe Mussar or Chassidishe celebration? Our great teacher Harav Kook ZTZL believed that there was a synthesis of the two paths. He said that now is the time for the disciples of the Vilna Gaon to join hands with the disciples of the Ba'al Shem Tov to bind the wounds of past struggles and  come together to take part in the redemption of Israel.