Different Kinds of Teshuvah
ויקרא רבה ז:ב
זבחי אלהים רוח נשברה וגו׳ (תהלים נא) זבדי בן לוי ור׳ יוסי בן טרטס ורבנן חד אמר אמר דוד לפני הקב״ה אני כבשתי את יצרי ועשיתי תשובה לפניך אם אתה מקבלני בתשובה הרי יודע אני ששלמה בני עומד ובונה את בהמ״ק ובונה את המזבח ומקטיר עליו את הקרבנות שבתורה מן הדין קרי׳ זבחי אלהים רוח נשברה וחרנא אמר מנין למי שהוא עושה תשובה שמעלין עליו כאלו עלה לירושלים ובנה את בהמ״ק ובנה את המזבח ומקריב עליו כל הקרבנות שבתורה מן הדין קריא זבחי אלהים רוח נשברה
Leviticus Rabbah 7:2
‘True sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; [God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.]’ (Ps. 51:19) Zabdi b. Levi, and R. Jose b. Petros and the Rabbis gave interpretations [of this passage]. One of them said: David said before the Blessed Holy One: I subdued/sacrificed my Evil Inclination and repented before You; if You accept my repentance, I shall know that my son Solomon will arise and build the Sanctuary and the altar and offer thereon the sacrifices commanded in the Torah.’We conclude this from the passage: ‘True sacrifice to God is a broken spirit . . . ‘. The other said: How do we know that, if a person repents, it is accounted unto him as if he had gone up to Jerusalem and built the Temple and the altars and offered thereon all the sacrifices ordained in the Torah? [We deduce this] from these verses: ‘True sacrifice to God is a broken spirit . . . ‘
What does “a broken spirit,” let alone the return of animal sacrifice, have to do with preparing for Purim, the wildest holiday in our tradition?
As Esther 9:1 teaches us, “Ve-Nahafoch Hu,” the opposite happened. In most years, we read this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Tzav, on Shabbat HaGadol, which precedes Passover. Because this is a leap year, this Torah portion about sacrifices and priestly worship coincides with Shabbat Zahor, which precedes Purim. Our ancient Sages crafted our calendar with both contingencies in mind, and each generation since has sought to glean new meaning from this convergence of our holiday and liturgical cycles.
One playful yet serious interpretation notes the overlap in sound and in spirit between Purim and Yom Kippur, which is often called in classic sources Yom Ha-Kippurim. Rather than translating the longer title as “the Day of Atonement Sacrifices,” a play on words results in calling Yom Kippur “the day that is like Purim.” This upends our solemn notion of Yom Kippur as the holiest day of the year, instead pointing to the jubilant carnival atmosphere of Purim as potentially an even deeper religious experience.
In order to grasp the cognitive leap in this reading, we must expand our understanding of teshuvah from repentance for particular transgressions to a general turn inwards for spiritual repair and renewal. While we focus during the High Holy Days on our shortcomings in great detail, on Purim we transform the somber end of winter into joyous anticipation of rebirth in spring. Likewise, we commemorate the painful historical and psychological experience of our people’s exile and celebrate with absurdity our Diaspora community. In fact, this is the only biblical Jewish holiday based on a narrative set entirely outside the Land of Israel and without connection to Temple worship.
This Purim, let us turn inward to embrace our broken spirits and to make our crushed hearts whole again. Through spiritual and material contributions in response to this winter’s political and geological upheavals, may we bring ourselves nearer to God and to righteousness.