Purim in the Brain

Celebrate-fireworksThe month of Purim gets special attention in the Talmud.  “When the month of Adar arrives, we increase our simcha (joy)” (Ta’anis 29).  This extra dose of happiness is of course due to the holiday of Purim that falls right in the middle of the month.  Of all of the holidays of the year, there is no question that we relate to Purim as the happiest and most joyous.  A phrase that the Torah uses in Parashat Titzaveh contains an important reminder of the ideal way to celebrate this day.

When the Torah describes the qualities of the craftsmen that would create the Mishkan, it uses an unusual phrase.  Moshe is told to enlist the help of the chachmei lev, the wise of heart.  Usually, any quality that is related to the intellect or to thought is associated with the function of the brain, not the heart.  The Torah, it would seem, should refer to these workers as the wise of brain rather than wise of heart.

Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman (born 1912), the prominent Israeli Talmudist, author, and political figure, writes that whenever scripture ascribes some faculty of thought to the “heart,” it is not referring to the organ.  He bases this position on Rashi’s (1040 – 1105) explanation of a verse in the Song of the Sea.  There, the Torah says that the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea” (Shemot 15:8).  brainRashi comments that the word “heart,” in this context, refers to the center or main part of an entity (seemingly due to either the heart’s physiologic or anatomic centrality).  The Torah is therefore poetically describing how the nature of the sea was completely upset by the miraculous splitting.  The same meaning, writes R. Shteinman in a passage that reveals his strong Lithuanian, non-Chasidic bent, must be applied to the Torah’s description of the Mishkan craftsmen.  When the word lev (heart) is used regarding a person, it refers to the main or central part of the person.  From the Torah’s perspective, this is nothing other than the mind.  According to this the accurate way to translate chachmei lev is “wise-minded” or “sharp-minded,” which are certainly qualities that are crucial for an expert craftsman.  (Rashi himself, however, apparently doesn’t take his explanation this far – see his comment to Shemot 4:14, cited by R. Shteinman.)

The idea that the central feature of a human being is his mind is especially important not to forget during Purim.  The happiness of Purim radiates not only from the special events that occurred on and around that day in the time of Mordechai and Esther, but also from the intellectual, spiritual, and religious ideas that emerge from those events as well.  purim recordOne idea, for example, is the great love that the Almighty demonstrated for his people when on the very day that they expected to be murdered, the Jews throughout the kingdom instead managed to kill the enemies that threatened them.  Another idea emerges from  a Talmudic explanation of the Purim episode.  It states that part of what contributed to the evil decree against them in the first place, from a spiritual vantage point, was their improper participation in Achashveirosh’s long and lavish celebration.  It was at the very same celebration that the mechanism for their eventual rescue by Esther was put in place when Queen Vashti fell out of favor with her husband, the King.  This teaches that when we trip and fall, our eventual recovery is already present – at least in a potential form.  It is certainly a mitzvah to enhance our celebration of Purim by rejoicing with fantastic food, drink, and friends.  The Torah’s emphasis on the centrality of our minds teaches us that Purim, like all of our holidays, can and must challenge the way we think and how we look at the world.


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