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Outreach through Love (Ki Tisa 03/03/18)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Outreach through Love
Purim fits the mold of the typical Jewish holiday: they wanted to kill us, we survived, let’s eat! Yet the Rabbis understood Purim on a much deeper level.
ספר אסתר פרק ט
כז) קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלֻ הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְעַל זַרְעָם וְעַל כָּל הַנִּלְוִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר לִהְיוֹת עֹשִׂים אֵת שְׁנֵי הַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה כִּכְתָבָם וְכִזְמַנָּם בְּכָל שָׁנָה וְשָׁנָה:
“The Jews affirmed and accepted upon themselves and upon their children and upon all that accompany them that they will never cease to observe the two days of Purim every year.”
Puzzled by the seemingly extraneous usage of both words “affirmed and accepted”, the rabbis explained their significance as not just an acceptance of the holiday of Purim, but also a reaffirmation of an earlier acceptance, the one we made at Mt. Sinai.
Under Moses’s leadership we accepted the Torah 850 years earlier, but then came the destruction of our Temple and exile from our land. The “Chosen” people were feeling quite unchosen, disregarded, and were ready to assimilate into their new homelands. Yet Haman, like Hitler thousands of years later, reminded the Jews that they were unique and could not hide their identity. When Haman was hung, and Esther and Mordechai led them to victory, they found new pride in their ethnicity and religion, as the verse says,
ספר אסתר פרק ח
לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשׂן וִיקָר:
“There was light and happiness and joy and honor for the Jews.” They rekindled their love of Judaism and recommitted themselves to their G-d. Therefore, Purim is not just a day of avoiding destruction, but also a renewal of vows between G-d and the Jewish people.
The Talmud has a different perspective on the Jewish renewal that took place. When we accepted the Torah at Mt. Sinai, it was as if we were forced to accept. G-d performed 10 miracles for us in Egypt. The sea was split before us when we needed salvation. Mt. Sinai was an overpowering experience of smoke, lightning and thunder. When we accepted the Torah then, the Talmud posits, it was as if we had no choice, for how could we refuse? We really had no free choice.
The Talmud understands any acceptance or agreement under duress as non-binding. The Sinai experience then had its limitations. When the Jews “affirmed and accepted” the Torah again during Purim, this was acceptance coming from love and therefore binding. The depth behind Purim is that it is the day commemorating a wholehearted acceptance of the Torah.
It also sheds light on how we should perform outreach and spread the light of Torah to others, through joy and love.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z’l has recently been in the news again. In his lifetime, Rabbi Carlebach was extremely controversial. As an Orthodox rabbi performing outreach through the medium of music, inspired davening and storytelling, his effusive love and charisma brought thousands of people closer to their heritage. Convinced that his generation (the hippie generation) needed and desired the affection of touch, the need for a hug, or to hold hands together, he abandoned the Orthodox prohibition of touching the opposite sex. Carlebach’s loving touch brought encouragement, love and strength to generations of Jews.
But for some women, his touch went too far, and there were rumors that he abused his charisma and power to take advantage of them. He was never sued or formally charged, but questions remained. Lately, with the rise of the #MeToo movement, certain synagogues have instituted a hiatus on Carlebach melodies.
I’m very conflicted on this issue. When I was a young Orthodox rabbi trying to spread the light of Judaism to others, Rabbi Carlebach was my role model. He never told his followers, “You must do this and this.” Rather, he suggested certain mitzvot, leading always by modeling and providing spiritual incentive and aspiration to observance. He was someone willing to be break with conformity to bring others close to Judaism, and he did it through love instead of guilt or force. He was my hero.
When Rabbi Carlebach passed away, hundreds of stories rose to the surface of his abundant care and generosity. When he visited Russia in the early seventies, he returned from his trip without even a yarmulke, for he gave away his tallit, tefillin, yarmulke and siddur to those pining for some vestiges of Judaism. From his home on the West Side, he’d take his guitar and sing to the poor and homeless in Riverside Park. He always came home penniless, for he gave away all his cash to those who needed it. Numerous tales arose of those who came to R’ Shlomo after his concerts and bemoaned their situation of unemployment and poverty to him. He’d endorse the check he had received for playing and give it to them without a second thought.
I of course do not know what really happened between Rabbi Carlebach and his accusers. But I think even if we have questions about the man himself, we can still embrace his message of outreach through love. It’s what brought the Jewish people closer to Judaism 2500 years ago in aftermath of Purim, and it’s what will continue to bring us closer in the future.

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