The Joy of Not Knowing
By: Rabbi Moishe Schnerb
Indeed the special holiday of Purim is almost upon us. In fact, many of us have already invested quite a lot of time and effort and even expense into thinking about how we are going to experience this year’s Purim. What should we dress up as? Maybe a ninja turtle? Perhaps this is the year to get our Tinker Bell costume out of mothballs? Or maybe it would be really creative to dress up as the broken Machine that is supposed to produce car licences?
Having solved that problem, we can then proceed to grapple with the next weighty decision: how many Mishloach Manot parcels should I send out this year and what should they look like? I really only want to send to my nearest and dearest, but that could amount to some 70 parcels, and this year Purim is on a working day. Also, last year my breakfast theme was so cute, and I got such good reviews for them, but I can’t repeat it again this year. So, maybe we should go with a midnight snack look or let’s try retro, and just send ecologically friendly foods wrapped up in grass so that I won’t be responsible for any carbon emissions. Such a dilemma!
But this is all kids’ stuff compared to the really important and knotty issues that we have to deal with in preparing for Purim, and that revolves around what am I going to be drinking, and how much of it should I imbibe, because everybody knows that on Purim you have to get absolutely stone drunk, inebriated to the point where all your friends stay far away from you, and won’t even acknowledge knowing you. What would be best to achieve that exalted status? Do I go with a single malt, maybe even something Irish, or perhaps the more sophisticated approach and sip a Pinochet or a Sauvignon Blanc?
We all acknowledge that the zenith of the Purim observance is the bash that we call the Purim Seudah at which many have the custom to overindulge in and reach a state of consummate consciousness or perhaps unconsciousness that provides others with some great entertainment and merriment, and generally sentences the imbiber to a serious headache and hangover the following morning.
By the way, let us not forget that there are two other very important, perhaps less glamorous mitzvot, which are also part of the Purim fun. The first is, of course, to make sure we hear the entirety of the Megillah both at night and during the day, preferably in the morning when we’re still teetotal, so that we can hear and concentrate on every single word. Secondly, to remember those who may not be able to celebrate Purim in the manner and style to which we have become accustomed, and to set aside generous amounts of charity money called Matanos l’evyonim to facilitate a joyous Purim for all.
But let us return for a moment to the subject of Purim and the liquid bar. What is this really all about? While certainly wine plays a very important role in the Purim story and in Jewish ceremonial life – it is what we use to make kiddush and Havdallah, and no wedding or Brit Milah would be complete without a blessing over a cup of wine; at the Seder, we go so far as to drink 4 cups of wine. So we certainly don’t advocate abstinence. But to drink to the point of inebriation? Halacha is full of sanctions against people who are too drunk to be able to fulfil certain mitzvot, and intemperance is considered one of the most base behaviours that a person can stoop to. Why on Purim is it such a hallowed and venerable custom?
Let us learn together a few beautiful pieces from our holy Torah, and maybe with that we will be able to plumb the depths and acquire some understanding of what is, in fact, not an act of debauchery, but an aspiration of the highest order.
The Gemora in Meseches Temura [16A] brings the following narrative. When our great leader Moshe Rabbeinu was about to leave this world, he said to Yehoshua, who was destined to become the new leader of the Jewish nation, “Please ask me any questions that you may have about the Torah I taught you and let me clarify any ambiguities that you may have before I die.” Yehoshua responded, “My teacher, have I ever left your side and gone somewhere else? You wrote in the Torah concerning myself ‘and his assistant Yehoshua the son of Nun never left the Study Hall’” The Gemora relates that immediately Yehoshua became faint and forgot 300 halachot and became unsure of 700 others.
The Jewish nation was so upset at Yehoshua’s newly acquired ineptitude that they wanted to kill him. Hashem said to Yehoshua, “I don’t know how to help you. I cannot tell you all the halachot that you have forgotten, because the Torah is now in your domain. The only advice I can give you is go and distract the Jewish nation by leading them into war,” as is described in the very beginning of the book of Yehoshua.
The way this story is usually understood is that as Moshe Rabbeinu, who was the purveyor of the Torah to the Jewish nation, was about to leave this world, he wanted to make sure that everything he taught his disciple, who was now going to be taking over the leadership position, should be absolutely clear, and that if there was anything that he did not understand properly, this was the moment to have any equivocations clarified. Yehoshua responded, if we can be permitted to use our modern parlance, “I’m good! I’ve got it!” As if to say that he had no doubts, and no questions to ask. This seemed to display a tinge of arrogance, where Yehoshua came across as portraying himself as being on the same level as his teacher Moshe. This is what led to him being punished and being exposed as not being all knowing.
The Chasam Sofer disputes this explanation by claiming that it is impossible to attribute arrogance to Yehoshua. As a proof he quotes the commentaries on the incident of the spies who explain that the reason Moshe changed Yehoshua‘s name from Hoshe’a to Yehoshua before embarking on the reconnaissance mission was because Yehoshua was so modest that he was in danger of being overwhelmed by the arguments of the scheming spies. How can we then claim that at this pivotal moment he displayed arrogance?
The Chasam Sofer then provides his own novel explanation of this narrative. He explains that the Torah is absolutely boundless and has no limits at all. Even Moshe, as great as he was, being the one who received the Torah from Hashem in order to transmit it to the Jewish nation, was not privy to all of the Torah’s infinite breadth, as the verse in Tehillim says: “You made him a little less than Divine.” The Gemora in two places says that there are 50 gates of understanding to the Torah, and even Moshe was only granted 49, and never had a full grasp of all the intricacies of the holy Torah.
Moshe’s greatness was his trait of modesty which was defined by his realisation that he was not able to know all of the Torah, and that what he knew was only a small fraction of what there was to know in Torah. That was the degree of Moshe’s modesty.
When Moshe asked Yehoshua to please use this opportunity to clarify any ambiguities, Moshe’s intention was to ascertain whether Yehoshua knew that there’s a large part of the Torah that he doesn’t know, and will never know. Yehoshua, however, did not understand the intent of Moshe’s questions, and thought that Moshe was asking him whether he had clarity in the portions of Torah that he had learned, and to that query the answer was an unequivocal yes, that what he had learned he knew with clarity. He was punished for failing to understand that as much as he knew, and as absolutely lucid as the Torah was to his mind, it was just a mere fraction of what there was to learn, and in order to reach greater heights of achievement in his Torah learning, he would require yeoman diligence and effort.
Using this concept, the Chasam Sofer proceeds to explain a fascinating piece of Gemora in Masechet Megillah [7B]:
The great sage Rabbah sent his student Abaya to deliver a Mishloach Manot parcel to Mori bar Mar. Abaya himself attested that when he left Rabbah’s house he was already full and satiated, yet when he arrived at the house of Mori bar Mar, he was offered 60 plates, with 60 different types of food on them, and that he ate from all 60 pieces. The last piece was called a pot roast and it was so delicious that he even wanted to eat the plate on which the dish was served. Says Abaya, this gives rise to the popular adage that a poor man doesn’t know when he is hungry, or a second version, even when a person is fully sated, there is always room for dessert.
The Maharsha posits that the plate that Abaya wanted to eat was some kind of confectionery, and totally edible, but that doesn’t in any way remove one iota of the difficulty in understanding such a story. Would any rabbi, even in contemporary times, be tempted to eat 60 plates of food and then the plate itself, and still be able to maintain any level of self dignity? This surely cannot be said about one of our Amoraim! Additionally, he asks, why does Abaya only identify the final dish as pot roast, why doesn’t he enumerate the entire menu that he was given?
The Chasam Sofer enlightens us with an entirely different elucidation of this Gemora. He explains that when Abaya left the home of his teacher and mentor Rabbah, he felt just as Yehoshua felt, that he was full of Torah and had already learnt the entirety of the Torah, and it wasn’t possible for him to absorb any more. However, when he arrived at the home of Mori bar Mar, they fed him 60 portions, which alludes to the 60 different tractates of our Talmud, and suddenly Abaya saw how hungry he was, because he now had open before him new vistas and pathways of understanding in all of these Tractates, and he finally understood how what he actually knew was negligible compared to the vast delights that were now available to him. The very last Mesechta they brought before him was Meseches Pesachim which has a whole discussion concerning whether a Pesach sacrifice can be roasted in a pot and that gives relevance to Abaya’s statement that the last course was pot roast. He was so excited he wanted to eat “the whole plate” meaning to learn the Mesechta in its entirety. This is because on the calendar Purim always comes out 30 days before the holiday of Pesach and he already wanted to swallow up and learn it all. However, that was not given to him because it was Purim day, and we must concentrate on the Halachot and the service of Hashem specially designated for that day.
What we can see from this is that the main source of Abaya’s happiness was that, even though originally he thought that he was full and satisfied with his level of achievement in Torah, he merited through the joy of Purim to attain the level of ad delo yadah – coming to the realisation for the first time that he actually knew precious little. Curiously, rather than causing a state of depression or worthlessness, it created a hunger and an appetite to learn and grow even more. This explains Abaya’s concluding statement where he said “a poor man doesn’t know when he’s hungry”, meaning that most of us don’t even have the awareness of how little we know, and remain contently oblivious to our mediocrity. Secondly, “even if one is full there is always room for something sweet” means that the way to develop this passion for Torah is to taste and experience just how sweet the study of Torah is.
The vastness of Torah is borne out by the fact that the Gemora says that Hillel the Elder had 80 students, the smallest of whom was Rabbi Yochonon Ben Zakai, and he knew the entire Torah. Certainly, his teacher Hillel was greater than he was. Hillel’s teachers Shemaya and Avtalyon were still greater, and could we even begin to compare them to the greatness of the prophets, King David going all the way back to Yehoshua and Moshe? This is why a Torah scholar is called a Talmid Chacham, because he is always a student, constantly aspiring to learn and understand more than he does now.
Now perhaps we can approach with a deeper understanding the statement of our Chazal in Meseches Magilla [7b]: “On Purim, every man has an obligation to become intoxicated until he doesn’t know the difference between cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai.” On Purim there is a special energy present that allows a person to reach this incredible level of realisation that whatever he has learned until now is so minimal. However, together with that actualisation comes the tremendous drive and hunger to achieve even more. This is the true Simcha of the Purim holiday, which is a celebration of our reacceptance of the Torah and our keen motivation to grow and achieve the greatest levels of excellence possible in our own corporeal realm. The drinking is a way of depicting to ourselves our lack of knowledge, because a dipsomaniac is robbed of his basic faculties and intellect, and that is the true state where a person can now embrace new opportunities and avouch for himself the sincere desire to begin climbing higher and higher in his own Torah learning.
The source of this energy is interestingly enough the reading of the Megillah itself. You see, Megillat Esther is placed at the very conjoin and interface between our Written and Oral Torah. Esther is the last inclusion in Tanach, coming as it does at the very end of the period of prophecy. No later works can be incorporated into the Written Torah. On the other hand, Mordechai, who wrote this Megillah, sat as a member of the Great Assembly (Anshei Knesset Hagedolah) which paved the way for the development and long-term sustainability of our Oral tradition, the Mishnah, Talmud, and all its commentaries. Megillat Esther poised, so to speak, and ensconced in both of these eras, is supercharged with the energy of both the Oral and Written Torah, and therefore provides a juggernaut of power and potential for us to firstly realise our own inconsequentiality in the realm of Torah knowledge, and using the Simcha of the day as a booster rocket, to launch us into an orbit fuelled by the sweetness of Torah, to reach a ‘cruising altitude’ whose destination is personal excellence in our connection to Hashem and His Torah.
So, let us bring out our fancy dress, and conjure up all kinds of culinary delights, and yes, let us drink our minds and intellect away. But let us remember it’s not just about having fun, but preparing to FUNdamentally upgrade our attitude and resolve to become so much more than we are now.