Purim: Prayer and Providential Perspective

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19 Feb 2021

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of Naaleh.com

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

It is customary, after the reading of the Megillah on Purim night and Purim day, for the congregation to recite the liturgical poem Shoshanat Yaakov/The Rose of Yaakov. The poem, although appearing to focus on the story of Purim, uses symbolism and language that reverberate for all time.

   “The rose of Jacob was cheerful and glad

    When together they saw Mordechai robed in royal blue.

    You have been their eternal salvation and their hope throughout the generations.

   To make known that all who hope in You will not be shamed; nor be humiliated, those taking refuge in You…”

So many questions arise. First, most other mitzvoth associated with specific holidays are performed either in the morning or at night. For example, we observe the Pesach Seder only at night and take the four species of Sukkot only during the day. Why do we recite this poem both morning and night? Getting into the poem itself, how does the rose symbolize Bnei Yisroel? Even more puzzling, why is it called the rose of Jacob and not the rose of Israel? Why is there such joy, and specifically, why at the techeilet/royal blue of Mordechai? Is there a difference between netzach/eternity and dor vador/all the generations? Finally, (We will not be discussing the entire piyut in this shiur.) Why would there be shame and embarrassment?

Rabbi Strickoff explains why we refer to Yaakov immediately after the reading of the Megillah that recounts the story of our salvation from Haman. If we go back to the circumstances of Yaakov returning and approaching Esau after twenty years, Yaakov prays to Hashem, saying, “Hatzileini nmeyad.../Save me from the hand of my brother, from Esau.” the initials of the first three words of Yaakov’s prayer are and acronym for Haman. Yaakov prophetically saw that the future descendant of Esau would try to destroy his own descendants, and he prayed both for himself and for the future generations at this time. Therefore, when we celebrate the Purim salvation, we remember the prayer of our forefather Yaakov on our behalf.

The rose is a dominant symbol in Shir Hashirim, the metaphoric love song between Hashem and Bnei Yisroel. Rabbi Cohen in Chazon Lamoed notices that the delicate rose, although it is blown in many directions, and is constantly stung by thorns, is still focused upward toward the heavens. Similarly, although we are pushed in all directions in exile, and pricked and hurt in so many ways, we still yearn for Hakodosh Boruch Hu and keep our faith in Him. Our prayers, in the Purim era as well as now, provide the merit for our redemption.

Our tradition tells us that Esther, at the entrance to Achashuerosh’s throne room, prayed to Hashem. She is the symbolic Ayelet Hashachar, the Morning Star of Psalm 22, alone, with only the King of kings to protect her. Mordechai too, from the moments he knew of the decree against the Jews, donned sackcloth and ashes, cried out to Hashem himself, and gathered all of Bnei Yisroel to daven together, as Esther had requested. The name Mordechai itself alludes to the myrrh, one of the spices in the spice offering. Mordechai stays in this prayer mode continuously, until the decree is rescinded.

Be’er Chaim, Rav Biederman, cites the medrash that when the decree was issued, Eliyahu Hanavi awoke the Patriarchs to beg them to plead with Hashem to annul the decree. Being unsuccessful, he approached Moshe Rabbenu who advised finding a tzaddik on earth to pray from below while he would pray from above. Between them Moshe Rabbenu and Mordechai were successful in annulling the decree. As Kedushas Halevi writes, even a decree that was signed and sealed can be overturned through the power of prayer. We enter the day already in prayer, coming off the Fast of Esther. Therefore, on these two days of Taanis Esther and Purim, in the merit of Mordechai and Esther, our prayers are extremely powerful, and therefore Rambam instituted that we read the Megillah both at night and by day as they cried night and day.

Indeed, Rav Biederman notes that the sparks of light that descends to earth during Kedushah on Yom Hakippurim are sparks that also come down and remain with us throughout the Purim day, making our supplications to Hashem for any need, and especially for redemption, even more potent. When we trust so strongly in Hashem, we will not be ashamed or embarrassed by our prayers.

Rav Scheinerman, in Ohel Moshe, brings another perspective to our discussion of the rose. The rose is soft and fragile, and therefore subject to change. The name shoshanah alludes to shinuy/change. Bnei Yisroel feared that their re-commitment to Torah and mitzvoth might wane with the passage of time. But when they saw the permanence of the royal blue robes on Mordechai, they were reinvigorated and knew that their commitment would last, as the royal line of Rachel Imenu was manifest in Yosef Hatzaddik and revived in Mordechai and Esther. Their connection to Hashem would never be severed.

Techeilet is the special blue that figures prominently on the mitzvah of tzitzit as well as in the color of royal robes. All of Bnei Yisroel yachad/together, as one, recognized that the royal robes Mordechai wore as the salvation was unfolding were not the result of political processes, but rather choreographed by the One we are to remember through the blue thread of the tzitzit, to the sea and the sky and finally, to the Heavenly Throne. Just as they were united in their vision at Sinai, so were Bnei Yisroel united here in their commitment to Hashem. But they, as we, were still in galus/exile, and the name of our Patriarch associated with exile is Yaakov. Hence, it is the rose of Yaakov, but the commitment and connection is lanetzach/eternal.

With this faith, Bnei Yisroel would never be embarrassed to call out and pray to Hashem as their forefathers had done. Rav Dovid Cohen explains that Bnei Yisroel were aware of the prophecy that they would be redeemed in seventy years. They could have passively waited out the time. But Bnei Yisroel were not embarrassed to cry out and pray to Hashem. Had they done nothing, perhaps the redemption would have generated in them a sense of embarrassment, of having received something for nothing. By putting in their own effort, the “work” of prayer, they earned their salvation. They accepted the edicts, had faith, and prayed to their Redeemer. Here the redemption was generated by prayers from below, unlike the redemption of Pesach which was completely from Above, from Hashem’s chesed to Bnei Yisroel. We are joyous because it was our faith that was the catalyst for our redemption.

Like the rose, Bnei Yisroel turned upward and saw the spiritual aspect of their salvation. They understood their role as the catalyst through prayer. Our prayer from below can always be the catalyst to awaken the salvation from above, reminds us Chazon Lamoed. As we know, the voice of Yaakov in Torah learning and prayer is the absolute antidote for the hands of Esau, reminds us the Ohel Moshe. Therefore, Bnei Yisroel saw in the blue of Mordechai its spiritual significance rather than the political value of that royal blue. It is this belief in Hashem and the power of our prayer that will lead us to joy even today amid the ongoing threats of antisemitism.

The Alshich leads us in a completely different direction in understanding this piyut. Beginning with the verse on Hoshea 14:6“I shall be as the dew to Israel, he shall blossom as the rose and cast forth its roots to Lebanon,” the Alshich explains that dew is the source and symbol of resurrection. While the rose begins tightly closed, the dew opens its petals so one can see and smell the full beauty within it. We are now in galus/exile, surrounded by the thorns of seventy nations like a lamb among wolves. The joy of Purim is that in spite of the environment, we survive forever.

Yet the salvation of Purim appears to be the result of the natural course of events. That is because in galus, Hashem’s face is hidden from us. In fact, that is how the Torah alludes to Esther, Hashem’s agent for our salvation. When the Torah says, “Haster Astir es Ponai/I will surely hide My face,” Hashem is alluding to [E]Asther, whose actions and presence conceal the actual hand of Hakodosh Boruch Hu orchestrating the events.

The Vilna Gaon uses a parable to illustrate this point. The prince had angered his father, the king. In punishment, the king banished his son to the forest which was also home to dangerous animals and criminals. Nevertheless, the prince remained unharmed. After some time, the prince realized that his father had secretly sent servants and soldiers to protect him from harm. With this realization, the prince returned heme and reconciled with father the king. Similarly, although we are in exile and we do not see Hashem’s presence overtly as we did in the Beit Hamikdosh, He still sends emissaries we do not know in ways we cannot fathom, except perhaps in retrospect, to protect the Jewish people from extinction. Purim is about salvation in galus, when we are in the condition of Yaakov, but we recognize that Hashem Who sent the angels to redeem us from evil in the past will continue to send angels for our salvation for eternity. Even in galus, we experience this joy when we see it reflected in the blue robes of Mordechai.

Herein lies the joy of Bnei Yisroel, writes Rabbi Rothberg in Moda Labinah. They saw the techeilet of the royal robe, the symbol of worldly politics, intertwined with Jewish destiny as the blue thread of the tzitzit was would around its white threads. Birotam yachad/They saw them together, as one unified whole. All the white, the background of history is for the purpose of the techeilet, the sapphire colored stone of the Almighty’s throne.

As Rabbi Mordechai Ezrachi notes, each scene appears disconnected to the entire picture, from Vashti’s death, to the search for the new Queen, to the choice of Esther, to Mordechai’s forgotten report of the plot against Achashverosh, etc. Only in retrospect can we see that this salvation was already set, teshuatam hayita lanetzach, prepared in the past, from the beginning, to be brought to fruition in the present. Thus Purim gives us this strength lanetzach/forever. We know that Hashem is orchestrating all the events and we have hope for the future, adds Rabbi Schorr in Halekach VehalebuvShoshanat Yaakov is the symbol of revival and rejuvenation, both physically and spiritually.

Rabbi Feiner relates a strange story from the Gemarrah that highlights the salvation of Purim. Rabbah and Rav Zeirah became so intoxicated during the Purim feast, that Rabbah slaughtered Rav Zeirah. The next morning, Rabbah prayed to Hashem, and Rav Zeirah was revived.

Whether we take this account literally or figuratively, the incident illuminates the story of Purim. Bnei Yisroel were also destined to die. The decree had been sealed not only by Haman and Achashverosh, but by the King in heaven as well. Mordechai donned sackcloth and ashes, urging Bnei Yisroel to do the same, and entered into fervent prayer to Hashem. Since our salvation was indeed from physical death, we celebrate with a seudah, with eating and drinking. “When we lift up our wine glasses… and exclaim l’chaim, we should reflect… that the Jewish people were brought back to life on Purim,” and that this is the constant reprise of our history.

Our reading of the Megillah is our recitation of Hallel in a concealed form, just as the miracle of Purim was in a concealed form, Writes Rabbi Bernstein in Purim: Revealing the Mask. It is precisely because the good and the challenging times, the events depicting exile and the events laying the foundation of our salvation are so intertwined, that the symbolic night and day are so intertwined, that we read the Megillah both at night and during the day. When events are unfolding in real time, we cannot know what is actually good and what is bad. Only in retrospect can we realize that it was all good, that Hashem is always good. But even in the present, we must keep the faith that in the future we will clearly see the Unity of Hashem and the good in all. Only with a limited suspension of disbelief through perhaps drinking a little too much, continues Rabbi Bernstein can the line between our perception of good and evil, between, “Blessed is Mordechai,” and, “Cursed be Haman,” be blurred so that we can see both as positive steps in reaching the ultimate goal in recognizing that Hashem is One and always good. When we look back at the Purim story, we give ourselves the strength to look forward with hope.

Purim will be celebrated forever, the joy of Purim is eternal, and the Rose of Yaakov symbolizes it all.

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