Esther: The Everlasting Experience

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05 Mar 2017

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Purim is unique among the holidays, for, as Chazal tell us, while all the other holidays will be nullified after the arrival of Moshiach, Purim (and according to some Yom Kippur as well) will continue to be celebrated. Yet Purim is not even a Biblical holiday. Why does it deserve this unique designation?

The idea presented by Rabbi Dovid Cohen serves as a perfect springboard for our discussion. He writes that all the other holidays find their roots in the supernatural miracles of the exodus from Egypt. However, all those miracles will pale in comparison to the miracles God will perform with the coming of Moshiach and the Final Redemption. The Purim redemption, in contrast, took place through non-miraculous, naturally unfolding events of national and political maneuverings. It is easier to see Divine intervention through the supernatural, writes Rabbi Akiva Tatz, than to recognize the Divine presence in the natural unfolding of events. In fact, the reality that one lone sheep called Israel constantly survived the onslaught of seventy wolves of other nations throughout the course of history shows even more definitively Hashem’s Divine providence and protection, even if He wishes to hide His presence from us.

This is perhaps another reason for wearing masks on Purim. When someone is at a distance, he needs no mask to remain anonymous. Only by waving frantically or otherwise drawing attention to himself will he be recognized. Only when Hashem is so close to us that we can’t fail to recognize His presence does He keep Himself hidden behind a mask, so to speak. As God hid Himself, so de we too don costumes and masks on Purim. And when Moshiach comes, writes the Belzer Rebbe, we will recognize all the hidden miracles that Hashem does for us on a daily basis even through natural means. This is the greater theme of Purim.

The story of the future Final Redemption actually begins with the Purim narrative, for wiping out Amalek, the nation of Haman, is one of the main objectives and events of that Final Redemption. Therefore it is fitting that the holiday commemorating that victory against Haman the Amalekite will continue to be celebrated.

Why is the eradication of Amalek so important that Hashem has vowed that the battle against Amalek will continue midor dor, from generation to generation, forever, until it is finally eradicated from the face of the earth? What does Amalek represent? To begin to understand the significance of Amalek one must go back to the story of creation. We find an allusion to Haman and Amalek in the question God asks Adam after he ate of the forbidden fruit: Hamin ha’etz – of that tree that I commanded you not to eat thereof …” You will notice that the letters of hamin are also the letters that form the name Haman. Our Sages explain that when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit they introduced doubt in God’s omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience into the world, an error for which they were punished not only with eventual death, but also with difficulties in life. The earth would be harder to till, kotz vedardar (thorns and thistles) will grow in the fields.

But hamin itself is just a question word, meaning “is it of”. In other words, Adam and Eve took questioning and doubt from the tree and created a distance between God and ourselves, writes Rabbi Tatz in World Mask.

But it is on this word, dardar, that Rabbi Brazile quoting the Bnei Yissaschar, makes another brilliant connection between the creation narrative and God’s battle with Amalek. Rabbi Brazile notes that God’s battle with Amalek is medor dor, from generation to generation, forever. Hashem uses the same letters signifying the thorns that will forever plague Israel and mankind. Rabbi Brazile then notes that there are very few letters in the entire Torah that are written as enlarged letters. One is in Shema, “… the Lord our God the Lord is EchaD, One,” and a second is the command not to bow down to el acheR, to a strange god. The difference between the two Hebrew words are the letters of “Daled” and “Reish”. Just a small extension on the daled differentiates it from the “reish”, similar to a thorn on the stem of a rose, making all the difference. [Indeed, the numerical difference between R, 200, and D, 4, is 196, the numerical value of Kotz, thorn!] Yet if one misreads the words, one will, unfortunately, be bowing down to strange gods and believing that our God is also another, not unique and singular.

It is this doubt that has been the thorn in our lives for millennia, a doubt that was erased from our midst after the exodus and the splitting of the Sea, but reintroduced with Amalek’s attack on our people as we left Egypt, weak and weary. Until that time, writes Rabbi Zev Leff, all the world believed in some form of higher power, even if it was a belief in many gods. Amalek introduced atheism into the world, the belief in nothing but the blind forces of nature. While the belief in idolatry is misguided, it can lead to a belief in monotheism, whereas a denial of any intelligent and guiding force is the antithesis of faith and religion. Amalek’s purpose in attacking Bnei Yisrael was to make the world believe that everything was a result of chance rather than of the planning of a higher authority. Therefore, Amalek “chanced” upon you on the path to wage war against you and your belief. Amalek would have us believe that neither a Supreme Being nor other gods of nature controlled the world.

Amalek attacked us on the path, continues Rabbi Leff. We believe there is a path, a purpose and a goal. Atheists believe only in the present, in chance. There is no tomorrow to care about or worry about, because chances are there may be no tomorrow.

The Purim Megillah continually employs the word tomorrow, continues Rabbi Leff. Even from the first encounter with Amalek in the desert, the focus is on tomorrow. Moshe and Yehoshua do not take up arms against Amalek immediately, but will fight tomorrow, hinting at the constant future battles with Amalek of which this is only the first. Similarly, at the first party Esther throws for Achashverosh and Haman, she refuses to reveal what is bothering her. Instead, she asks them to come back “tomorrow” when she will reveal all. For Jews believe in tomorrow whereas atheists believe only in the present.

Rabbi Rivlin expands on the idea of tomorrow in Hesteirim B’Esther. The battle against Amalek is not limited to the era of the exodus or of the Persian Empire, but persists in all time, in every generation. Just as Bnei Yisrael initially accepted the Torah at Sinai for themselves and for their children and future descendants, so was the work of Mordechai to seek peace for all generations. Mordechai and Esther understood that their victory over Haman the Amalekite in Persia would be one battle won in a long war. Therefore, both focus on tomorrow. Esther will be revealing tomorrow to King Achashverosh, at a second party, that Haman wants to destroy her people, and Mordechai and Esther will celebrate and establish the Purim holiday not on the day of victory but on its morrow, alluding to our yearning for the future time when Amalek will be erased from this world and all the world will recognize the sovereignty of Hashem.

When God in the Torah reveals His ongoing battle with Amalek and the doubt Amalek engenders, He uses unusual language to describe this war – “Ki yad al keis kah  …” He puts His hand on His throne to symbolize taking an oath to continue this war from generation to generation. But the words used to describe God’s throne are incomplete.  The word for throne should be kisay, but the letter aleph, representing the One God, is missing, as are two letters from God’s four-lettered name. Rabbi Leff explains that God’s throne is incomplete while Amalek exists. How? The four-lettered name of God Y-H-V-H incorporates all time, past, present and future. With the two letters here, we have allusions to God’s throne existing in the past and in the future, as we can see from studying history or from studying the prophecies. But recognizing God’s sovereignty and  involvement in the present is missing here. Purim represents seeing God in the present, in the daily processes of the world.

Rabbi Pinchas Friedman in Shvilei Pinchas explains how we want to reunite the four letters of God’s name and effect the completion of His throne. Citing the Baal Shem Tov, he describes how giving tzedakah to the poor, one of the four mitzvoth we must fulfill on Purim, symbolically creates these four letters. The coin we give is small, like the letter yud. We take it in our hand of five fingers, equal to the letter heh. We then extend our arm that now resembles the straight letter vav. Finally, we put it into the five fingers of the recipient, giving us the final heh.

Normally, we are told to try to research the circumstances when someone asks for help, and then initiate the giving. But on Purim, everything is turned upside down and the natural order is reversed. On Purim, we do no investigations, but give freely to all who extend their hand. Even though the order of the letters is backwards, we are extending Divine kindness and perpetuating God’s Name in the world of the present. As Rabbi Hofstedter points out, a day of judgment has been converted to a day of mercy.

Rabbi Pincus presents us with a metaphor of a ladder for the holidays. Each holiday is another rung on the ladder. The top rung is Purim beyond which is Moshiach. How does Rabbi Pincus explain this metaphor and why does he put Purim at the top? Rabbi Pincus writes that God arranged the events of the world in response to our actions. He redeemed us from Egypt in response to, “And the nation believed,” a redemption we commemorate with Pesach. We said, “Naaseh venishma – we will do and we will listen,” and we received the Torah and celebrate Shavuot. We followed God through the desert, and Hashem protected us with Clouds of Glory, and we celebrate Succoth. When the Greeks tried to pry us from our beliefs, we fought back, and our self-sacrifice earned us the holiday of Chanukah. For each of these holidays, we initiated the events that eventually gave us the holiday.

Purim, however, is different. The stimulus came from outside. The edict calling for our destruction was already sealed. The natural course of action should have been to be more circumspect in our observance. Yet Mordechai and Esther had us do the opposite. Instead of the Passover Seder which should have been observed, Mordechai decreed a fast. Mordechai and Esther understood that the only way to be saved was to throw ourselves on God’s mercy, to acknowledge that we may have no merit, and God is in total control. Esther went in to the king against all protocol, throwing herself on the human king’s mercy to plead for her people, while Mordechai gathered all the people, men, women and children, to fast and pray to God to save them. Purim is the holiday that acknowledges that God is the only One in control.

Therefore, on Purim all the gates of mercy are open and, just as we are enjoined to give to anyone who asks, so can we too ask of God for whatever we need writes the Netivot Shalom.

The message of the Purim narrative is eternal, and so Esther demanded that it be written, as the eternal Torah itself is written, to indicate its everlasting significance, writes Rabbi Egbe in Chochmat Hamatzpun. And just as every letter in the Torah is sacred and unique, so is each Jew holy and unique, and connected to the eternal light and energy, writes Rabbi Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv. When I give someone a gift, I am acknowledging that uniqueness, and I see the eternal light within him. Therefore, to generate this feeling of love for each other, of value for the uniqueness of our fellow Jew, we have the mitzvah of mishloach manot, of sending gifts to each other on Purim.

The events of Purim let us see the hidden hand of God that nevertheless controls the world. It’s a day of closeness to each other and especially to our Creator. It’s a day that keeps God in our lives in the present, even as we recall the past and hope for the future.  It is a day wherein we get a bird’s eye view of the majesty of the future, when Hashem’s name will be revealed, and Amalek, and all evil will be eradicated forever.

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