When the famed writer Isaac Bashevis Singer reached the age of sixty, he told his friend he knew he would live to 120. “How can you be so sure?” his friend asked. “Because” explained Singer, “when I went for my checkup my doctor told me I was half dead.”
Many cultures discuss what is appropriate to each age. 30 is the age of strength in the Talmud, the age of courting according to Greek thinker Solon, the age when Confucius ‘planted his feet firm on the ground.’ At sixty, the age of Singer’s quip, the Talmud says he is becoming an elder in wisdom, and for Confucius, he has become a good listener.
As life extends roles change, but there are still clear stages through which people pass, chronicled by everyone from Shakespeare in poetry to Erickson in psychology. Age is the inevitable division, as youth has not experienced growing old and old age is often hazy in its recollection of youth, and the world has changed.
We therefore owe it to one another to share across ages as we do culture and background. Each age has its passion and its lesson. As Rav Kook said in another context, it is our task to renew the old and sanctify the new.
Purim is a holiday of masks. A mask doesn’t fully change you, but it obscures identity, distorting who you are. A mask permits you to assume a slightly different way of being in the world. The boy who dresses as Mordechai can act old and wise, but everyone recognizes him as a boy playing a role; the girl who dresses as Esther can play at being bold, heroic and a queen, but everyone knows she is still a little girl.
There are many reasons why Purim is associated with masks, but surely a deep meaning is that it is a diaspora holiday. Purim takes place in ancient Shoushan, Persia. The plot revolves around Haman, who hates the Jews. The reason given is that Mordechai, a Jew, will not bow down to him, but the story implies that Haman’s rage is what we have come to know as classic anti-Semitism — a hatred in search of a rationale.
In our day we appreciate why Purim is a holiday of masks. In the diaspora, Jews were forced to wear masks all of the time. In Muslim lands we were dhimmi, second class citizens subject to a vast range of indignities. But there was no protest against the status for Jews were powerless to change it. We wore the mask of acceptance and accommodation. In Christian Europe, Jews were regularly exiled, persecuted, belittled targeted for conversion and sometimes killed. But in country after country they donned the mask of the willing subject, because rebellion against their situation only made it worse. For the few who did not wear a mask, the Mordecais who did not bow down, paid a terrible price.
Even in the United States, for a long time Jews were afraid. During World War II many Jewish leaders were reluctant to challenge the government’s neglect of the massacres in Europe for fear of stoking anti-Semitism here at home.
With the founding of the state of Israel, Jews finally took their masks off. This is who we are, we declared to the world, a free people who can practice our own tradition. After the catastrophe of the Shoah American Jews realized the cost of hiding. Part of the rise of anti-Semitism is the resentment of those who are angry at unmasked Jews. Many prefer the way things were in the age of the original Purim, the time of the frightened diaspora, to the Jewish situation today. Yes, they hated Jews who were scared as well, but at least there was a measure of control. No more. As Purim ends across the world in our day, we can take our costumes off — because the Jewish people need never wear masks again.
One of the characteristics of great sages is that they rise above their times and express truths despite the prevailing climate of opposing opinion. The following was written in the 16th century:
“Even if his words are spoken and directed against faith and religion, do not tell a man not to speak and suppress his words. Otherwise there will be no clarification in religious matters. On the contrary, one should tell a person to express whatever he wants…and he should never claim that he would have said more, had he been given the opportunity…Thus my opinion is contrary to what some people think. They think that when it is forbidden to speak against religion, religion is strengthened; but it is not so. The elimination of the opinions of those who are opposed to religion undermines religion and weakens it.”
So wrote the famous Judah Loew, known as the Maharal, of Prague (also of Golem fame). He wrote in a time when suppression of dissent and persecution of heretics was rife. But the Maharal understood that deep faith could survive questioning and even thrive on it and need not be afraid.
How can we be commanded not to covet? After all, wanting something is natural. Yet the tenth commandment teaches us not to covet.
There are many answers in the Jewish tradition. One points to the idea that you only covet that which you believe you can have. Whatever belongs to someone else should be considered strictly off limits, and if you think of it that way you will not covet it. More radically, one Hasidic response reminds us that in the Torah, they are not called the Ten Commandments, but aseret hadevarim – the ten sayings. The first for example, “I am the Lord your God” does not exactly fit the structure of the English “commandment.”
Therefore, Rabbi Yechiel of Zlachov teaches, “Thou shalt not covet” is not a commandment. It is a promise. If you live your life according to the other nine devarim, you will not want for anything. While others may be tormented by desires, you will feel grateful and blessed. You will not, as the poet wrote, find yourself desiring ‘this man’s art and that man’s scope, with what I most enjoy contented least.’ The tenth commandment, then, is the reward for observing the other nine – a little inner peace.