Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Absence and Presence, Purim and Pesach

In this season that seems to oscillate between winter and spring, we Jews move from the bacchanalia of Purim toward the more subtle joy that comes with Pesach's liberation from Egypt and all the other narrow places where we so frequently find ourselves stuck. These two holidays are connected by a series of special Shabbats that fall in this season, beginning with ShabbatShekalim (a few weeks before Purim) and ending with Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbaththat falls the weekend before Pesach (and classically one of only two days a year--along with the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur--when rabbis would deliver sermons).

This connection reinforces the seasonal nature of these celebrations. Purim marks the first buddings of spring, Pesach its true arrival. Each is centered around a story--the scroll of Esther in the case of Purim and the haggadah's account of the Exodus for Pesach. And both holidays prominently feature our children, who blot out Haman's name with their raucous noisemaking on Purim and open Pesach's sacred storytelling by asking the Four Questions at the seder. Yet there are also significant ways in which Purim and Pesach are profoundly different. Purim is the day when "anything goes." Pesach, by contrast, is when we are most bound by extraordinarily detailed rules (mostly around what we can and cannot eat). This is paradoxical, of course: we celebrate our freedom by obsessing about eliminating chametz--leavened products--not only from our diets but also from every corner of our homes.

Recently I read of another way in which these two holidays are simultaneously similar and, in manner of speaking, mirror-opposites. The similarity is this: the story at the heart of each celebration is marked by a profound absence. In the case of Purim, the absent character is God, who does not make a single appearance in the megillah. While many of the traditional commentators point to God as running the show from backstage, directing the human actors according to a divinely conceived script, at least on the surface, the book of Esther is entirely a tale of human drama. In the case of Pesach, Moshe Rabbenu is the one whose absence permeates the haggadah. The account of our liberation in the book of Exodus prominently features Moses, but the haggadah clearly and explicitly edits him out of the story. When we recount our tale of deliverance at the seder, it is as if God brought us out of Egypt directly, with no human actors or initiative involved at all.

And thus the similarity between Purim and Pesach--a gaping absence in the narrative of each--is also the profound difference. In Purim, this absence leaves us with an entirely human drama, with God relegated behind the curtain. In Pesach, by contrast, the absence leaves us with an entirely divine drama, in which we are all bit players compared to God's overpowering star-turn.

For most of us, citizens of a secular state and age, Pesach is the more problematic of the two absences. Our lives are more like Purim, lacking a deity who intervenes directly in our affairs. The message of haggadah can be jarring for us. We don't know what to do with a God who tends to us with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. After all, if God could act in such a manner, then where was S/he during the Holocaust and countless other catastrophes which might have been averted through divine intervention? As far as I am concerned, any God who could have acted to stop the Shoah but chose not to do so is a monster, unworthy of our prayers.

I prefer to think that God is absent when we do not make room for God. The Divine is present to us when we make room for it, by laughing at Purim and asking questions at Pesach. After all, it is absence that calls us to seek Presence. As Wallace Stevens wrote, "Not to have is the beginning of desire." In Purim, that desire draws us into a search for God. By Pesach, it calls us to search for Moses, for human leadership.

In these difficult days, surely we need both--human leadership and divine inspiration--to move forward.

Happy Pesach to all.