Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Purim - an antidote to idolatry

It won't come as a surprise to most of you that I love Purim. It's my once a year opportunity to act really, really silly, while still “acting like a rabbi.” For those who don't know, Purim is a holiday on which we dress up in costume (under Jewish law, it's the one time a year when we're allowed to dress like a member of the opposite sex), get a little drunk (officially, we're supposed to get more than a little drunk, but that's a story for another time), and generally behave as ridiculously as we can.
One of my favorite Purim traditions is the mock service—and by “mock” I mean that we mock the service itself. We do goofy versions of our prayers. We sing them to random tunes (“Adon Olam” to “Stairway to Heaven” anyone?). It's a complete sendup of our (usually) sacred service. I know that some people are uncomfortable with this part of Purim. It feels “over the line,” somehow. But, besides being a whole lot of fun*, I think it's also a religiously essential act, because it's a kind of anti-idolatry. Let me explain…**
* I've led services dressed as Jesus and a gorilla (not at the same time). I'm pretty sure that if I had known of the idea of a “bucket list” back then, both of those would have been on it.
** no. There is too much. Let me sum up…
Worship is a sacred act—that should be pretty obvious. It's our attempt to reach out beyond ourselves and connect with the Most High. Prayer is one of the pillars of Judaism, and one of the most important, absolutely essential things that we do as Jews. I could spend a lot of time talking just about how important prayer is, and why, but I'm pretty sure that it goes mostly without saying.
But, at the same time, it's possible to take our prayers too seriously. It's possible—easy, really—to forget that our prayers are a tool that we use in an attempt to reach holiness. They are not holiness themselves. It's possible, in short, to make an idol out of our prayers.
Let me give you an example. One year, I did a silly version of the Barechu (actually, I usually do that…). Officially, that's the “call to worship,” so I did it as a cell phone call. I had God call me, while I was on the bimah, and tell me that it was time to start praying.
Afterwards, a rabbi I know (and who, it must be said, I love and respect greatly) chastised me about it*. He told me that he thought that the service was inappropriate. And, the example he used was that Barechu. I remember him saying something like, “you made a mockery of the Barechu, of all things!”
* If he had chastised me because the joke was lame, then maybe I would have agreed. A cell phone call to worship? I did that my first year of Rabbinical school, for cryin' out loud!
I remember thinking, “the Barechu? Really? That's what offended you?” The Barechu isn't even a prayer, technically. Like I said—it's a call to worship. It's the starter's pistol—the moment in which the prayer leader tells us all that the warm-ups are over, and it's time to begin the “main” prayer. Sure, it mentions God—just about everything in the service mentions God, naturally. But, liturgically speaking, it's just not a major prayer, if it's a prayer at all. To hold it up like it's some sacred, untouchable icon just seems disproportionate. Inappropriate, even. It's giving it a status that it may not really deserve. And, when that status is "holiness," then we've ventured into idolatry which is, at its core, treating something that isn't sacred as if it were.
Like I said, praying is one of our most sacred and important acts. But, at the same time, our prayers are just prayers—just words. They are, as I often say (quoting some long forgotten source) the barely coherent mumblings of a bunch of pretentious, hairless apes. Really, who cares if we mock them? What harm does it do? Do we think that God will be offended? Will the prayers' feelings be hurt, or will they be less effective tomorrow because of this?
As Bruce Lee once said (in the first scene of "Enter the Dragon") "It's like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory!" Our prayers are a finger pointing at the moon. If we focus on them, we miss all of that heavenly glory!
Most of the time, treating our prayers like they are sacred is an important part of praying - we treat them as sacred, so they become sacred, and they can lead us to the sacred. But, it's so easy to start thinking that the prayers are the thing, and to forget that they are just pointing us, instead.
So, once a year, we remind ourselves. We treat our prayers not like sacred rites, but like ridiculous ramblings. We mock ourselves, and we mock what we do in synagogue. We remind ourselves that our prayers are, in fact, just prayers.
Then, tomorrow, we go back to looking for the moon.

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