I’m hesitant to put my Mama Jean story in writing. There’s so much improper imbibing on Purim, so much regarding of “lib’sumi” (to become tipsy) as license instead of mitzvah.
But the story’s too good, and its message too meaningful, to leave unshared.
“Mama Jean,” as she liked to be called, was the cook in a small yeshiva where I studied many, many years ago. She was a very large, very jovial, very middle-aged ethnic Italian from “the other side of the tracks.” While she was serving us pasta with meat sauce, her son was serving a life sentence in San Quentin.
Her first year with the yeshiva brought revelations to both us and her. We learned about fresh oregano. And she learned about strange Jews. How they could feast so incessantly on Sabbaths and holidays, eating odd things like cholent, and how they suddenly ate nothing at all on fast days.
When Purim was imminent, we thought Mama Jean should be prepared for yet a new strangeness. Gingerly, we told her about breaking the fast after Taanit Esther, about the festivities of that night and the next day, about the festive meal, about how some might be drinking a bit more than they otherwise might. She wasn’t fazed and not only prepared a royal spread (and special punch) for the yeshiva but watched the singing and dancing from the kitchen throughout the day.
It was a wonderful Purim, what I remember of it. What I clearly remember, though, was an early morning later that week. My mind is sharpest in pre-dawn hours, and I had entered the yeshiva’s beis medrash, or study hall. well before morning services.
Expecting an empty room, I was startled to see a formidable form sitting on the floor before a bookcase at the back of the hall. Mama Jean was oblivious to my arrival, deeply engrossed in an English holy book that had been on a shelf.
When she sensed my presence, she was startled, and I apologized. “But Mama Jean,” I said, “What are you doing here?”
She stood up and smiled sheepishly. “Avi,” she said. “I’m thinking about becoming Jewish.”
Mama Jean struck me as an unlikely convert (and, to the best of my knowledge, never became one).
“Why?” I asked, sincerely curious. “Purim” was her response.
Her elaboration has remained with me for decades since. “Over my years,” she explained, “I’ve seen a lot of people plenty drunk. But I’ve never seen so many people so drunk… without a single fight.” All that she had seen at the yeshiva, she explained, was friendship, joy, laughter, tears, and religious devotion.
Mama Jean, I realized, had sensed what the rabbis of the Talmud teach: that a person’s true character is evident in “his cup”—in how he acts when intoxicated. She had perceived Klal Yisrael.
The Talmud (Shabbos, 88a) teaches that something was missing when our ancestors received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, something only supplied centuries later by the Jews in Persia at the time of Mordechai and Esther.
Because the revelation at Sinai involved an element of coercion: “G-d held the mountain over the Jews’ heads like a gigis (a barrel).” Explains the Maharal: The powerful nature of the experience, the terrifying interaction of human and Divine, left no opportunity for true free choice.
And for years that “coercion” remained a moda’ah, a “remonstration,” against the Jewish People. Until the Purim story. Then, the Jews chose, entirely of their own volition, to perceive G-d’s presence where it was not obvious at all. Instead of seeing the threat against them in mundane terms, they recognized it as G-d’s message, and responded with prayer, fasting, and repentance. And by choosing to see G-d’s hand, they supplied what was missing at Sinai, confirming that the Jewish acceptance of the Torah was—and is—wholehearted, sincere and pure.
When I think of my early morning conversation with Mama Jean, I think of the Talmud’s image of G-d “holding the mountain over their heads,” and, especially, of the phrase “like a barrel.” What’s with that? Is a mountain overhead not frightening enough? Who ordered the barrel?
A gigis, however, throughout the Talmud, contains an intoxicating beverage.
In Pirkei Avos, we are taught not “to look at the container, but at what it holds.” I suspect that advice may apply here. The Jewish nation’s reaction to coercion may not reveal its truest nature; what does, though, is how we express our dedication in a state of mindless purity.
© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE
[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]
The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.
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