Judaism: Purim: Accentuating the Acceptance
Purim is a unique holiday. Although it is not mandated in the written Torah, it is the one yom tov that our Sages agree will continue to be celebrated after the coming of Moshiach. What is so special about this holiday that warrants this exalted treatment?
A well known Gemarrah tells us that Bnei Yisroel accepted the Torah at Sinai only after Hashem suspended a mountain over them, threatening their life. But on Purim, the Megillah records that Bnei Yisroel “kiyemu vekiblu, confirmed and took upon themselves … to observe …” Our Sages point to this phrase as witness that at this time Bnei Yisroel took upon themselves not just to observe Purim as a holiday but to accept again the Torah from Sinai. But this time, there was no coercion; Bnei Yisroel accepted the yoke of Torah through love of Hakodosh Boruch Hu and His Torah, for now they recognized the great miracle Hashem had done for them.
The Ohel Moshe asks a very simple question. Certainly the Israelites who left Egypt saw many miracles and were saved countless times. Is it possible that they still never accepted the Torah out of pure love? How is this salvation different from the salvation from Egypt?
The Belzer Rebbe, the Likutei Imrei Kodesh, draws a parallel between receiving the Torah at Sinai and the way we celebrate Purim today. The Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer notes that the Jews fasted for three days before receiving the Torah in preparation for such an exalted experience. We too fast, Tannis Esther in part to prepare for our reacceptance of Torah on Purim.
The Belzer Rebbe continues with the parallels. Before Matan Torah, Moshe took twelve stones and built an altar to Hashem, symbolizing that only through the unity of the twelve tribes, of the entire nation, could we merit receiving the Torah and could we in fact observe the entire Torah. In the Purim story, that unity was reenacted as Esther commanded Mordechai to gather together all the Jews and have them all pray and fast on her behalf. Only then would they merit salvation and a re-acceptance of the light of Torah. This unity is further exemplified in one of the special mitzvoth of this day, sending gifts from one Jew to his friend.
The parallels continue. Even with this unity, the Belzer Rebbe says, we must still realize that human beings do not deserve the Torah, we are poor and of limited merit. Rather Hashem gave us this priceless gift out of kindness and the love He bears us. We try to emulate Hashem by also giving gifts to the poor on Purim. Perhaps, we can add that the final mitzvah associated with Purim, we are commanded to have a festive meal, similar to the festive meal we are commanded to have on Shavuot, the holiday we celebrate to commemorate receiving the Torah at Sinai and the only mitzvah we are commanded to observe on that day.
Rav Reiss in Keruai Moed further offers that Torah is so often referred to as “light”, and when Haman’s threat was deactivated, the Jews had “light and joy ….”, the light they had now was not just from coming out of their dark situation, but from the light of the Torah they had now joyfully accepted . This light, says the Ohel Moshe, was a reflection of the light Hashem shined on them and showed them His love in their darkest times, when we think He has forsaken us.
There is a wonderful parable attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and interpreted with variations by Rabbi Gruenbaum. A great king has a son who is under the sad illusion that he is a turkey. As such, he lives under the table of the king surrounded by the four sides of the tablecloth that hang to the floor. This enclosure constitutes his world. He pecks away at the scraps of food and bone that fall beneath the table from the king and the others who dine at the table, never realizing that there is a king above who is purposely dropping big food scraps and telling his servants to do the same. In his world underneath the table, the prince does not see the love his concerned father has for him.
The world at Sinai was the experience of the prince in his proper role sitting at the table enjoying his close relationship with the King. It is only now, in our first exile experience that we are now under the king’s table wondering if we are even noticed by the king. We were a holy nation, but we were still separated from our God by this heavy curtain.
At the time of Purim, we were still under the table. That was still our reality. But now we understood that there was a King looking out for us outside the tablecloth, a King Who loves us. As Rabbi Pincus says, it is as if we lifted the tablecloth to get a glimpse of Him, and He waved back at us. “Peek-a-boo, here I am. You may not see Me,” says Hashem. “I may be hiding My face, but I am always here. I am always watching you and loving you.”
For 800 years, continues Rabbi Tatz, we were at the King’s table from our stand at Sinai until now. Yet never had we felt God’s love as we did now at the brink of annihilation. Then Hashem defeated Amalek miraculously, but His defeating Haman, Amalek’s descendent, was even more miraculous, for He did it behind a veil and a mask, the unseen puppeteer pulling the strings of the cosmos. Through this revelation Bnei Yisroel felt God’s love in the ordinary occurrences of life. As Elkanah Schwartz says in Seasons of the Soul, Purim is the time when the ordinary is elevated to the extraordinary, when we recognize Hashem’s hidden presence in every ordinary aspect and occurrence of our lives.
This idea helps explain the rituals of Purim more fully. Rabbi Pincus tells us that Mordechai wanted to make Purim a full holiday with a prohibition against work. But the Jews argued that doing so would undermine the very lesson of the events. It is easier to implement holiness in the sacred. What Purim teaches is that we can invest holiness in the mundane, for Hashem Himself can be found in every mundane occurrence of our lives. Celebrate Purim as an ordinary day, and imbue it with mitzvoth that are generally ordinary actions but are now being uplifted. We give presents to our friends and charity to the poor all year round. Make these special mitzvoth signifying unity on this day. Eat a festive meal and rejoice in the love of our Father the King.
There are lessons for us all in the Purim story, the Netivot Shalom teaches us. We all have times of darkness in our lives, both as individuals and as a nation in every generation. Purim teaches us that we can extend our hand to Hashem by doing teshuvah, and He will grab that hand and pull us from the brink. We can ever feel the closeness and connection, and recommit ourselves to Torah and mitzvoth as our Persian ancestors did. As we focus on the Megillah reading, take a moment at its conclusion to turn to Hashem with our special tefillot, says Rabbi Pincus, for this is the moment of kiyemu vekiblu, of the validation of our connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu not just out of duty but out of love. The Megillah is also the time of clear demonstration of the love of Hashem towards His people, and therefore every year this time is when the heavens are open to respond to our tefillas with love.
There is an additional perspective through which we can view this double acceptance of the Torah that would indicate there is no contradiction between these two acceptances. Many of our commentators point out that our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai was an acceptance of the written Torah, the one conveyed to us through the words of God Himself. On the other hand, the Oral Torah, the tradition handed down from generation to generation and interpreted through the eyes and the ensuing dictums of our rabbis and sages as subsequent generations required was only accepted through coercion.
As the Shvilei Pinchas points out, the response of Bnei Yisroel is, “Naaseh Venishma – we will do and hear all that Hashem has spoken.” But later in the text, when Bnei Yisroel ask Moshe to speak to them and not Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself, the response is slightly different: “Veshamanu veasinu – we will hear and we will do,” the hearing preceding the doing. Only at the Purim events did Bnei Yisroel recognize the wisdom of our rabbis and sages and accept their decrees as valid.
The Shvilei Pinchas continues by citing the Chasam Sofer. How did Bnei Yisroel of that era come to realize the importance of embracing Torah SheBeAl Peh, the dictums of our rabbis in every generation? When Ahashuerosh invited all the citizens within his realm to attend the great feast he was making to glorify his reign, Mordechai prohibited the Jews from attending. He understood that attending this feast would be the beginning of a decline to disaster. Most of the Jews did not accept Mordechai’s prohibition. They joined in the festivities, and ate and drank with abandon.
However, as the events unfolded and they recognized how close they had come to annihilation, they understood that Hashem invests our great men with a unique daas Torah, knowledge of Torah that gives them greater insight into what each generation needs in order to remain Torah Jews and needs for its survival. They then understood the importance of the Oral Torah alongside the written Torah, and accepted and embraced it with the same love they had accepted the written Torah at Sinai. The Megillah itself bears witness to this, as it says, “Kiyemu vekiblu – they confirmed (did) and took upon themselves,” preceding the confirming and doing to the hearing, as they had done at Sinai.
The Medrash tells us that when Bnei Yisroel proclaimed, “Naaseh venishmah,” each one of them received two crowns to correspond to these two words. However, after the sin of the golden calf, these crowns were removed and given to Moshe. Every Shabbos, Moshe invests each of us again with these crowns. As the Sheveli Pinchas relates, the miracle of Purim began on the Shabbos, when Ahashuerosh was merry with wine on the seventh day and ordered that Vashti be brought before him, thus precipitating Vashti’s death and Esther’s entrance into the palace to await her moment of destiny in Jewish history. Mordechai, whose neshama is a spark of Moshe himself, was now able to bring those crowns back to Bnei Yisroel as they accepted the Oral Torah without preconditions, just as their ancestors had accepted the written Torah.
He goes on to cite the Zohar as a source for the mitzvah of mishloach manot, sending two gifts to a friend. The decree of death which had been suspended at Sinai but was reinstituted with the sin of the golden calf will again be suspended in future time, when the crowns will again be conferred on Bnei Yisroel. The decree of death for Bnei Yisroel was indeed suspended after the edict of Haman, when Bnei Yisroel took upon themselves the oral Torah as they had accepted the written Torah generations earlier. When we send these two gifts to our friend, we are symbolically giving him these two crowns again.
If we examine the Hebrew word ma-n-o(v)-t, we will note something interesting. The first and last letters spell met, death. But by inserting n”o(v) between them, the acronym for naaseh venishmah, we are breaking the power of death. By submitting ourselves to the mindset of our Rabbis and Sages, we accepted the Oral Torah with the same force as we accepted the written Torah, and we averted the decree of death.
It is therefore fitting, says the Paamei Moed, that the original battle against Amalek be fought by Joshua, for he was the one who inherited the mantle of Torah leadership from Moshe and was the first link in the chain of the transmission of the Oral Torah.
The Torah tells us that we became a nation on the day Moshe died. This day should have been celebrated as the beginning of a yom tov because it celebrated what Moshe brought to Bnei Yisroel. Our people mourned for Moshe for thirty days, so the holiday was lost. But, says Rabbi Zvi Meir, the Sichot Hitchazkut, this holiday was returned us on Purim as the seventh day of the lost yom tov, when the Oral Torah that started with Moshe was accepted as a reenactment of the Sinai commitment. By committing ourselves to the Oral Torah, we are committing ourselves to the study of Torah, to applying ourselves and toiling in its study.
This is our preparation for the rebuilding of our Beit Hamikdosh, as we prove our commitment to Torah and mitzvoth through continuing the chain of transmission in our generation and to the next generation. And by accepting a Rav we will eliminate the doubt in Hashem’s word that is the hallmark of Amalek.
May all of Klal Yisroel have a bright and uplifting Purim. May it be a harbinger of a final, speedy redemption from the Amalekites that are still found in this world.