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24 Shevat 5759 - Feb 10, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Opinion & Comment
The Miracles and the Masks
by HaRav Moshe Avidan

This week is parshas Shekolim, and our thoughts naturally turn to Purim. The following essay is about some of the less amusing aspects of the period, and about the preparations we make for Purim.

In many layers of Israeli society, and many non-religious Jewish homes throughout the world, the character of Jewish yomim tovim has been falsified to such a degree that they are unrecognizable by Torah-loyal Jews.

The days of Tishrei, which are properly dedicated to reflecting on one's sins, have been transformed by the typical working man into inter-holiday rest breaks, solemnly "celebrated" from the depths of a beach chair on the shores of the Kinneret. Starting a full month before Chanukah, the typical Israeli fulfills the mitzvah of the holiday every night lemehadrin min hamehadrin -- by gorging himself on jelly doughnuts. The seder night, so filled with holiness, has become a sumptuous dinner party, with its main feature the eating of delicious kneidlach. And Purim night has become a raucous masquerade and block party.

Purim seems to be the most "privileged" of all Jewish yomim tovim. It is scrupulously celebrated even by those whose lifestyle is totally secular the rest of the year. When Purim arrives they fulfill the posuk "and many of the people of the land become Jewish" by suddenly remembering that they too are in fact Jewish.


Many years ago I read about a rav in Egypt who was on the way to the beis haknesses on Tisha B'Av night when he chanced upon a Jew eating his supper in public. The rav asked him how he dared eat on such a sorrowful night, when the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed. This person answered: "The Beis Hamikdash was destroyed more than two thousand years ago; I see no reason to continue mourning for it."

The rav waited for Purim and then sent an emissary ordering the rebellious Jew to appear before the beis din. When he arrived, the rav told him that he had decided to put him under arrest for the entire day of Purim. The Jew begged the rav to cancel his decision, arguing that he must be free to fulfill the mitzvos of Purim: to eat the Purim meal, to wear a disguise, and of course to put his best efforts into drinking "until he is not aware of the difference between `cursed be Haman' and `blessed be Mordechai.' "

The rav answered: "Just a moment; the miracle of Purim happened five hundred years before the destruction of the Second Temple. Just because some two thousand five hundred years ago there lived a Jew in Persia called Mordechai and a non-Jew called Haman, is it necessary to celebrate the fact anew each year? The posuk teaches us: `If I should forget Yerushalayim' -- if you have forgotten the destruction of Yerushalayim, then -- `let my right hand [yemini] forget' -- you must also forget Mordechai ben Yair the Yemini, of the tribe of Binyamin."


On the Shabbos before Purim a few years ago, a young man at the beginning of his way to teshuvah ate at our table. During the divrei Torah in the course of the meal, I mentioned Haman's name. The guest politely asked exactly who Haman was. I was astonished! How could a man who had graduated from an Israeli high school ask such a question? Even if he did not learn about Purim in school, he must certainly have participated in Purim parties, either at high school or during and after his military service.

His embarrassed answer was that although he most certainly did take part in many such parties -- at every opportunity, in fact -- to his dismay those parties never held any Jewish content. They consisted of nothing but unruly behavior; nothing in them was even remotely connected to Jewish tradition. His elementary school years were spent outside Israel in a non-Jewish school, and he never learned about Jewish history under the rule of Achashverosh. During his high school years in Israel no one bothered themselves with "Purim fairy-tales." In this way, although he was now twentyfour years old, possessed an Israeli high school graduation certificate and had finished his military service, he was still ignorant when it came to the halochos of Purim. Except, that is, for the all- important "halocho" of disguising oneself during Purim.

It is hard to conceive just how unfortunate those Jewish children are who know nothing about the special splendor that graces Purim. The only mitzvah they are careful to do is to disguise themselves, which is not only not a mitzvah, but even as a custom it is opposed by some poskim, who even suggested annulling it (see the Ramo, Shulchan Oruch Orach Chaim 696, the Knesses HaGedolah ibid., and other commentaries).


Purim is elevated by Chazal (in the Tikunei Zohar) to be compared to Yom HaKippurim [Yom HaKippurim is "Ki" -- like -- Purim]. The commentaries have, however, had difficulty explaining the meaning of such a comparison.

R' Kalonymos Shapira zt'l (in his work Esh Kodesh, p. 30) explains that just as teshuvah and fasting on Yom HaKippurim are obligatory because of Hashem's command, so also being cheerful is obligatory on Purim even for someone who is depressed. (One should note that this was written in the Warsaw ghetto.) Just as the day of Yom HaKippurim itself brings atonement, even though one may not have done teshuvah (according to Rebbe in Yoma 85), so it is with Purim. Although one may not have fully discharged his spiritual duty of being properly merry, still the salvation and the happiness that Purim causes can nevertheless take place.

Others have explained that one can receive a sublime spiritual level from HaKodosh Boruch Hu through the avoda of happiness on Purim, just as one can through the avoda of fasting and afflicting one's soul during Yom HaKippurim.

Although we are not proficient in the hidden wisdom of the Torah, nonetheless we know that just as one needs forty days of preparation before Yom HaKippurim [starting from the first day of Elul] so also one must prepare himself for Purim. Preceding Purim are forty-two days of the Shovevim (an acronym formed of the first letters of the weekly parshiyos from Shemos until Mishpotim, which are days especially suited to teshuvah for certain types of sins) -- days for reciting special tefillos and fasting. There are also leap years when the preparation is even longer, consisting of fifty-six days and lasting until parshas Tetzaveh.

It is cited in the name of Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev zt'l that just as after one toils to prepare a garment he gets pleasure from wearing it, so during the six weeks before Adar (suggesting aderes, which means `garment' in Hebrew) there come the days of Shovevim. These are days of preparation for receiving the new garment -- a garment of holiness. Therefore when Adar (the new garment) comes our happiness increases.


Let us now reflect on the essence of these sacred days and the educational significance that lies behind them.

Megillas Esther quite clearly describes the lowliness man can reach. A king who ruled over most of the world could sit together with his ministers, advisors and sages, and waste both days and nights in drinking and competing with each other in inventing abominations. Some commentaries have noted that the word mishteh is found twenty times in the Megilla -- the same number of times that it is found in the rest of the entire Tanach!

We are being taught here a trick of the yetzer: initially it entices man to do permissible and even essential acts, such as eating and drinking, and after one partakes of these things the yetzer will draw him from one desire to the next.

The Megilla recounts the progress of the drinking bout of seven days, and all the fine linen, fine cotton, and "indigo wool, gathered with flaxen and purple sashes, upon silver reels and marble columns" and about the "couches of gold and silver" on the floor of "alabaster and marble, of mother- of<196>pearl and onyx" (Esther 1:5-6, translated by Rabbi Y. Y. Reinman, C.I.S. Publishers, 1994).

The Vilna Gaon writes concerning these pesukim: "The yetzer hora penetrates bit by bit. First, when the yetzer is still weak, it makes us crave food and drink. Later we crave expensive clothes (fine linen, fine cotton, and indigo wool), and then costly beds and bedspreads. The next stage is that we desire gold and silver, and then pearls and precious stones. After reaching this state a person wants even the floor to be made of precious stones, since a person does not attain even half of his cravings before he dies (Megillas Esther with the Gra's commentary, Yeshivas Tiferes BeTalmud publishing, 5751, second edition, pp. 262- 281).

We ourselves see that this ascent of the ladder of lusts does not only happen gradually; surprisingly, one can reach the top rung in a very short period of time. We have often seen families who were originally content if they had bread to eat, but later when their livelihood improved they start dressing up (fine linen, fine cotton, and indigo wool . . .). Later comes the time to remodel their home (marble columns), which in turn simply "forces" them to change their furniture (couches of gold and silver). Naturally, after that the floors do not match the sparkling appearance of the entire apartment, and they too must be replaced (a terrace of alabaster and marble, of mother-of-pearl and onyx).

This reality, that a person is never satisfied with what he has, even if he has attained an abundance of wealth, is highlighted in the Megilla by the behavior of Haman the rosho. Haman reached a notable position in Achashverosh's kingdom, where "all of the king's slaves . . . were kneeling and bowing to Haman" (3:2). He was exceedingly proud of his power and recounted to Zeresh, his wife, and all his acquaintances "his glorious wealth . . . and that the king had elevated him and raised him above all the ministers . . ." He went on to tell them that only he was invited to a party along with Esther and the King, "and tomorrow too I am invited by her with the King . . ." (5:11- 12).

But how does he feel after all this honor? Is he satisfied? Are all his desires fulfilled? No, absolutely not! He declares to all: "And all this is worthless to me . . ." (ibid., 13). Why is he so displeased? As long as there is one person who does not bow to him, he is disgruntled, even infuriated.

Everyone knows Chazal's question: "Where is Haman mentioned in the Torah?" (Chulin 139). The gemora answers: Hamin ho'eitz [Did you eat from the tree forbidden to you?] (Bereishis 3:11). Of course, the plain meaning of the gemora's answer is difficult to understand: what relevance does Odom and Chavah's eating from the eitz hadaas have to Haman? It is true that the letters used are similar [Haman -- Hamin], but what is the lesson that Chazal wish to teach us?

Some explain that Chazal were simply amazed at Haman's behavior. Although he had received such a great deal of honor from people throughout the world, he still cried out in pain, "And all this is worthless to me!" One trivial thing was lacking to fulfill all his desires -- Mordechai HaYehudi did not bow to him.

Chazal wondered where in the Torah we find a source for such bewildering behavior. They answered that we find the same behavior displayed in Odom and Chavah. The first two people in the world had all the fruit in the world available to them: "From all the trees in the garden you shall eat" (ibid., 2:16), but still they only desired the single fruit forbidden them.

We learn from them that man should not fool himself into thinking that if his current whims are fulfilled the yetzer will leave him alone. The yetzer will never abstain from trying to catch him in its net; it will constantly try afresh to tempt him with some new sort of desire. Chazal therefore advise a person to know that he should be satisfied with what he has right now and not aspire to what he lacks.


If the leaders of the Zionist state ever wanted to design a program for a holiday to commemorate our salvation, they would most certainly appoint a sizable "Celebration Committee" and allocate enormous funds towards making the masses rejoice. It is to be assumed that the committee would decide after many sessions of lengthy deliberations to organize mass celebrations centered around public entertainment stages. All these festivities would be going on while noisemakers merrily sounded in the background. By contrast, let us reflect on how much kedusha and splendor the leaders of Mordechai's period poured into Purim, which is Yom Kippurim.

As an introduction to our celebration, a day long fast was decreed. This reflects the principle of, "Be joyous while trembling (Tehillim 20:11)." At the conclusion of the fast all Jews enter the shuls to listen to the story of the Megilla, in order to "learn what this was and how it had been caused" (4:5). They learn the reason for our celebrating.

On Purim morning all men, women, and children go once again to the synagogues to hear the story of the miracle that occurred for us. But even then, the time for the Purim meal has not yet arrived; there are still many other mitzvos to be done.

First we must check and assure that no poor person remains without a Purim meal; only in that way can we have a true Yiddishe simcha. Afterwards, to increase friendship and brotherhood among our nation mishloach monos are sent to all acquaintances and family. Now after each one of us has a belly full of mitzvos and good deeds and is well aware of the reason for all the gaiety, then and only then can he sit down to a Purim meal and satisfy the gashmiyusdike needs of his body.

During this meal we are commanded to drink "until we do not know the difference between `cursed be Haman' and `blessed be Mordechai'" (Megilla 7b). The Rambam (Megilla 2:15) writes: "One drinks wine until he is drunk and falls asleep due to his drunkenness." The Meiri, writing more in detail, cautions us: "Nevertheless we were not commanded to become drunk to the point of lowering ourselves because of the simcha. We were not commanded to make a simcha of unruly conduct and foolish acts. It should be a simcha of [true] enjoyment, through which we will increase our love for Hashem and gratitude for all the miracles He did for us."

In these times of distress we are promised that the days of Purim will not depart from among the Jews. The Baal Shem Tov explains: "The days of miracles will never disappear from the Jews and will be actively remembered and done in every generation."

May it be His will!

(An excerpt from Mereishis Hashanah VeAd Acharis Shannah)

Rav Moshe Avidan is supervisor of Beis Yaakov Teachers' Seminaries in Eretz Yisroel.

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