When this one will rise the other
one will fall –
Midrash and Rashi Genesis 25:23
Tuesday, March 15, Purim 2006 – Milan, Italy
Land Monday at Malpensa
Airport in Milan. The singsong lilt of Italian is warm and silky. In contrast
to, say, the guttural sound of authoritative German. Yet, despite its soothing
tone, this (or its root) may also be the language of Titus and the Romans
as they destroyed the Holy Temple 1938 years ago.
Purim eve I hear for the
first time the Persian version of the Megillah reading [the Purim narrative
read in synagogues twice on the holiday, in the evening and the morning].
The Persians read the Megillah without the Ashkenazic intonations; and the
end of each phrase is read out loud by the entire congregation, and then repeated
by the leading reader – more like an intimate story being read together.
Considering that the Persian
Jewish community goes back in an unbroken chain to the events of Purim in
ancient Persia, it seems likely that their tradition may be closer to the
original than the Ashkenazic one. Fine with me; I do after all have some Georgian
My thoughts travel back
to heaven. From the sky there is no difference between Persia, Rome or Jerusalem;
they are all little geographic dots on the Earth’s landscape. The higher you
go the smaller and more insignificant everything on Earth appears. All the
wars and politics, all the differences and obsessions of mankind seem like
irrelevant anthills in the backdrop of the grandiose galaxies.
No wonder philosophers
of all sorts found it difficult to imagine that G-d would care about the minutia
of this small speck of a universe. The higher they climbed, the greater the
horizons, the less importance our lives became. Even to the extent of questioning
whether there is a Divine Deity at all. Ironic indeed. One would think that
the more one would experience the grand majesty of the universe, especially
today with our sophisticated telescopes and outer space ventures, the greater
would be the respect for the Cosmic Artist… Yet, the sheer magnitude of this
gargantuan magnificence also diminishes the value of each detail, and the
consequence of each individual life, which pales in comparison to the vast
beauty of the cosmos. And thus one wonders whether G-d cares…
But back on Earth we
care. And back on Earth we have Purim – the celebration of the triumph of
a minority against their oppressors, in this case a small nation surviving
annihilation at the hands of the world’s superpower. Purim celebrates that
it does matter and we do care, and so does G-d. G-d’s presence
may be hidden (thus the Divine is not consciously mentioned in the entire
Megillah), but His direction is not. When you study in perspective the details
of the story and their conclusion, you see the Divine Providence at work.
The dots may seem immaterial from close up, but when you connect them, a picture
Our lives are the same.
From a respectful distance the daily details of our lives, which so consume
us from close up, seem irrelevant. But from an even greater distance patterns
otherwise known as Chassidic thought, elaborates on the reconciliation of
the paradox of the indispensable significance of every minute detail within
the context of a great universe created by an even greater G-d. Three levels
of perception exist: The first is called the “perception from below” (Daas
Tachton), how we perceive the universe. On this level every detail
matters. The second is the “perception from above” (Daas Elyon),
and from this perspective the details do not matter, because the Divine is
infinitely greater and completely transcends existence as we know it. Then
there is the “perspective” (if you can even call it that) which transcends
and (therefore) combines both perceptions, “from below” and “from above.”
It transcends even transcendence.
The Chassid, Reb Gershon
Ber of Pahar would explain this paradox with an analogy. Three connoisseurs
marveled at the beautiful painting of a field. The first one was intrigued
by the elegant details of each stroke; the use of colors and tones; the combination
of all the elements – tilled soil, stalks of wheat, rows of stalks, a bird
perched on a branch, surrounding flowers – to depict the simple but profound
beauty of nature as played out in the common field. “What a great farmer,”
he thought, “this artist must be.” The second expert, who was a personal acquaintance
of the artist, was amazed at the fact that this sophisticated aristocrat,
who was infinitely superior to a farmer, was able to lower himself to draw
a painting of something so inferior to himself. The third specialist was in
absolute awe of something that the first two entirely missed: The artist had
infused his entire personality – which completely transcended the field –
into the details of the painting of the field!
All three were right:
The field – the universe – is beautiful; the Cosmic Artist transcended His
field; but He also imbued it, in all its infinite detail, with His Personality
Wow, it’s hard to believe
that a simple Megillah reading Persian-style evoked these thoughts. Their
personal, interactive way of telling this ancient story struck me as the capturing
of eternity in an hour (which is approximately how long the reading took)
in a most concrete way.
But maybe it wasn’t just
the reading. Purim day I participated in the celebrations of different families,
and I movingly witnessed the depth of the Divine in simple acts, in just one
city, on our small planet Earth, one speck of our mammoth universe, a mere
echo of the cosmos and beyond, but this echo resounded with immortal music.
There is something about
traveling away from home that allows you, if you allow yourself, to witness
events in slow motion, almost like out-of-body, and see things in a new light.
My hosts Rabbi Moshe and
Mrs. Judy Lazar, who have built a beautiful family spread around the world,
are devoted as possible to their work in the Milan Jewish community for the
past 46 years. Rabbi Lazar shows me his Viennese birth certificate stamped
with a German swastika. He escaped Vienna in 1939 and arrived in America on
the last boat out of Italy. Mrs. Lazar was born in Hungary, herself and her
family Holocaust survivors. Now both of them are here dedicated to helping
anyone they can reach – a comforting presence in the Roman Empire. Tell me
that this is not a mark of eternity.
My friend Izzy Namdar
takes me around to visit some of his family. Originally from Persia, then
London, they are now living in Italy. Refined, wholesome people of deep belief
– demonstrating the unwavering power of faith that has carried the Jewish
people over millennia.
And then of course, Rabbi
Gershon Mendel Garelik and his dedicated wife Bessie – the first couple sent
by the Rebbe to Italy in 1959, and have loyally served as his shluchim ever
since. Their 47 years of total dedication in a foreign country has made an
eternal impact on the people and the land. Their children both in Italy and
around the world are involved in similar work. The Russian Born Rabbi and
his American born wife, both from deep Chabad Chassidic homes, are now helping
reshape Italian culture. (Even though the Rabbi tells me that when he speaks
Italian people think he’s speaking Hebrew or Yiddish).
The European children
of Esau – whether it be in Rome, Paris or Berlin – have finally found their
match. The children of Jacob are on the march, chipping away and making their
mark on the Esau-saturated European gods.
I was watching myself
watch the simple beauty of mankind, of Jews celebrating with their families,
visiting friends, bringing gifts, sharing a drink – nothing very dramatic,
but eternity nonetheless.
People who care, who are
committed, who would go out of their way to help another. People who are making
I know G-d is watching
Wednesday, March 16, Shushan
Purim 2006 – Jerusalem, Israel
A 3½ hour flight takes
me from Italy to Jerusalem, where Purim is being celebrated a day later than
in the rest of the world.
Walled cities in Israel
(walled from the time of Joshua) – and those cities that are close and within
eyesight of the walled cities – are honored by celebrating Purim on the 15th
of Adar, called Shushan Purim, the day Purim was first celebrated in Shushan,
the capital of Persia, which was a walled city.
Jerusalem is such a city.
Old Jerusalem was and is surrounded by a wall, which was first built in the
time of Joshua (the present wall is relatively newer). [In Tzfat and Tiberias,
also walled cities, Purim is celebrated both days because we are not sure
whether they were walled in the time of Joshua].
So here I am celebrating
Purim for the second time in two days. (Does that qualify me for the Guinness
Book of World Records?)
This year, I guess, I
needed a double dosage of Purim madness.
What a difference a wall
Yet another paradox. Walls
are confines, limitations. And yet these walls express the majesty of special
cities, in our case Jerusalem. Within these confines infinity can be found.
This small walled city is a Divine portrait. As G-d told King Solomon: “Yes
indeed, heavens and heavens of heavens cannot contain Me, but this building,”
the Holy Temple, can contain my Essence.
And within the single
day of Purim, just 24 hours long (in my case 48 hours), we experience that
which is “beyond perception” (“ad d’lo yoda”), beyond the walls separating
the curse of darkness and the blessing of light.
Yes, what difference a
wall can make.
My mind wanders back to
heaven and back to earth again.
And then there’s Samach-Vav
– the Chassidic tour de force delivered a century ago this year. After several
weeks of respite, the Rebbe Rashab resumes his discussion on the nature of
light – that elusive entity which straddles the fence between the existential
and the non-existential.
Flying above the clouds
– with basically no telephone (cell or other) calls to disturb you – is conducive
to brushing up on your Samach-Vav.
Though the Rebbe Rashab
does not make the connection, I think that Purim, like light (“la’yihudim
hoyso orah…”) bridges the two realities, the two perceptions,
below and above.
Rome. Jerusalem. Purim.
Shushan Purim. Unwalled citied. Walled ones. Ashkenazim. Sefardim. One people.
Two worlds. One story. Two scripts.
Blake wrote, in one of
the most eloquent phrases ever penned, “To see a world in a grain of sand
and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and
eternity in an hour.”
Words are words. It’s
quite another matter to live these words – to experience eternity in an hour.
And indeed, we all are in need, from time to time, to have a taste of eternity;
a feeling that you and your actions matter and have lasting impact.
To do so we often need
to turn our lives upside down and inside out. Which in a sense is what Purim
is all about.
I drowse off as I write
these words. As my eyes close, overlooking the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem,
I think about the words of the prophet: “Jerusalem will sit open ; for I will
be your wall of fire, says your faithful G-d.”