Category Archives: PURIM

Purim in the Valley of Tears

The below is by my esteemed father-in-law, R’ Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, a Polish-born survivor of three concentration camps, who lives in Toronto. It is adapted from his  book “Destined to Survive” (


We sat listlessly on our bunks, waiting impatiently for the high point of our day – our meager ration of bread.  It was my seventh month in Dachau’s Death Camp #4.

“Do you know that tomorrow is Purim?” I asked, trying to distract my brothers in suffering, and myself, from our painful hunger.

“How do you know?”

“It’s freezing! Purim can’t be for another month.”

“No, no!” some protested. “Srulik doesn’t make mistakes like that! He has a good memory.”

“Crazy Chassidim!” others grumbled. “You’ve nothing else to worry about besides when Purim falls this year? What’s the difference any more between Purim and Pesach, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? Isn’t it always Tisha B’Av?”

The debate gathered force among the block’s “mussulmen” – the eighty living skeletons crammed tightly into a virtual wooden tomb overgrown with grass.

It was the hour before nightfall.  We lay in the camp infirmary on wooden boards covered with a thin layer of straw, our eyes riveted on the curtain separating us from the block elder’s spacious quarters.

Suddenly the curtain parted, and the block elder stood there with his henchmen, bearing our bread rations; it had been nearly twenty-four hours.  Each inmate measured his ration wordlessly with his eyes, and compared it to his neighbor’s, each convinced that the other had received more.  At such times, best friends became bitter rivals and within minutes the stingy portions were devoured.  But our stomachs felt as empty as before, the gnawing hunger made all the more intolerable by the realization that it would be a full day before the next piece of bread.

Having just suffered through a bad bout of typhus, I fell back on my board, and fast asleep.

When I woke up the next morning, I felt dizzy; my head was like a leaden weight.  I began to conjure images of my past, of my parents and my sisters, Gittel and Mirel… how I used to study in the study-hall of the Chassidim of Ger.   Mostly, I remembered my grandfather, Reb Herschel, who loved me and would take me, his only grandson, along whenever he went to the Gerer Rebbe. I pictured the Chassidic leader’s face, his eyes overflowing with wisdom and love, penetrating my very soul.

Will I ever have the merit, I wondered, to press myself once again into the crowd of Chassidim gathering around the Rebbe, to learn from him how to be a good Chassid and a G-d-fearing person?

“Time to pray, Srulik.”

My friend’s voice shook me from my reverie.  The memories vanished.  I was back in the pit of hell.

“Yes, of course,” I said. “Let’s wash our hands and daven.”

Then it struck me.

“But it’s Purim!” I exclaimed.  “We have to organize a minyan!”

My pain and pangs receded.  Summoning strength, I went to wash my hands and face and then to find some others to complete our minyan. Perhaps, I thought, I might even find someone else who could recall a few more verses from the Megillah so that we might fulfill something of our sacred Jewish obligation to publicly read the Book of Esther.

G-d responds to good deeds undertaken with dedication.  A copy of the second book of the Bible, with the Book of Esther appended, was discovered by my friend, Itche Perelman, a member of the camp burial squad.

We were elated.  Such a find could only be a sign that our prayers had been received in Heaven and that the redemption was near.  Our excitement grew.  Who remembered the hunger, the cold, the filth, the degradation?  No one gave a thought to the dangers involved in organizing our prayer group, to the possibility of a German or kapo deciding dropping in unexpectedly. Even those who the day before had scoffed at the “crazy Chassidim” seemed excited.

“Who will read the Megillah?” someone asked.

The lot, so to speak, fell on me.  Within moments, volunteers managed to locate some clothing for me since, like all the inmates of the infirmary, I had been assigned nothing more than a blanket with which to cover myself. And so, dressed in a camp uniform, a towel wrapped around my head in place of a yarmulka, I read the words: “and Haman sought to destroy all the Jews.”

When I read of Haman’s downfall, and that “the Jews had light and happiness, joy and honor,” the spark of hope that glimmers in every Jew’s heart ignited into a flaming torch. “Dear L-rd of the Universe!” I know each of us was thinking, “Grant us a wondrous miracle too, as you did for our forefathers in those days. Let us, too, see the end of our enemies!”

When I finished, everyone cheered.  For a brief instant, the dreadful reality of the death camp had been forgotten. Having exerted the rest of my strength on the reading, I sat breathless, but my spirit soared.

When people’s actions are pleasing to G-d, even their enemies are reconciled to them.  The block elder, who usually strutted in with a scowl, smiled as he entered that day, ladling the soup without cursing at anyone. And the ever-present jealousy among us inmates seemed to turn into generosity.  Instead of complaints that someone else had received more potatoes, I heard things like “Let Srulik get a bigger portion of soup today!”

Instead of bemoaning the present, we dreamed of the future, of when the German demon would inherit his due, when this Jewish suffering would end.  And like a river overflowing its banks, thoughts of redemption burst forth from broken hearts.  One mitzvah led to another, to further acts of spiritual heroism. Someone decided to forgo the small piece of bread he had saved from the previous day, and offered it to his comrade. Another made a gift of a piece of potato, and these two “portions”, which only yesterday would have caused ill will, now became the means by which the inmates could fulfill the mitzvah of “sending gifts of food, one to another.”

Those precious “Mishloach Manos” were passed around from one to the other, until they finally landed on my lap. Everyone decided that I should be the one to keep them in the end as compensation for my services.

I thought to myself, “Dear G-d, behold Your people, who in an instant can transform themselves from wild creatures to courageous, caring men and faithful Jews…”

And a verse welled up inside me: “Who is like you, Israel, a singular nation on Earth?”

“Precious Jews!” I said to the others. “Brothers in suffering!  Let us make but one request from our Heavenly Father: Next year in Jerusalem!”

A Call To Arms

The thesis that is the Jewish Nation has an antithesis: Amalek.  And just as the Jewish People is defined by its Torah, so is its polar opposite associated with a particular system of thought and attitude.

Amalek the nation is unknown to us today; the Biblical command to destroy it to avert the mortal threat it poses to all that is good and holy is thus moot.

Amalek the notion, though, is very much present – in the broader world, the Jewish one and perhaps, to a degree, within each of us as well. And its undermining remains an obligation both urgent and clear.

A hint to the attitude defining Amalek lies in the Torah’s words immediately preceding that nation’s first appearance.  In Exodus (17:7), just before the words “And Amalek came,” the Jews wonder “Is G-d in our midst or not?”  The Hebrew word for “not” – “ayin” – literally means “nothing.”  That Amalek’s attack comes on the heels of that word is fitting, because Amalekism stands for precisely that: nothing.  Or, better: Nothing – the conviction that all, in the end, is without meaning or consequence.

In Hebrew, letters have numerical values.  The number-value of the word “Amalek,” Jewish sources note, equals that of “safek,” or “doubt.”  Not “doubt” in the word’s simplest sense, implying some lack of evidence, but rather  doubt as a belief: the philosophical shunning of the very idea of surety – the embrace of cynicism, the championing of meaninglessness.

For there are two diametric ways to approach life, history and the universe.  One approach perceives direction and purpose; the other regards all as the products of randomness – cold, indifferent chaos.

The latter approach is the essence of Amalekism.  It is a worship of chance, reflected in things like the Purim story’s Amalekite villain Haman’s choice to cast lots – putting his trust in chance – in choosing a date to annihilate the PersianKingdom’s Jews.

The religion that is Amalekism is often regarded as a harmless agnosticism.  But it is hardly benign.  Because if nature is but a series of dice-rollings, its pinnacle, the human being, is just another pointless payoff.  Man’s actions do not make – indeed, cannot make – any difference at all.  Yes, he may benefit or harm his fellows or his world, but so what?  There is no ultimate import to either accomplishment

In fact, asserts the chance-worshipper, he is no different from the animals whom he considers, through the lottery of natural selection, his ancestors.  He may be more evolved, but in the end is no less an expression than they of purely random events.

Amalek’s credo is proudly and publicly proclaimed today.  From “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” (PETA), which contends that “meat is murder”; to Princeton University’s Professor Peter Singer, who asserts that “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee”; to books like “Eternal Treblinka,” which makes the loathsome comparison of animals slaughtered for food with (one winces to even repeat it) the victims of the Nazis

And it lurks, more subtly but no less surely, in the contemporary insistence that chance-based evolutionary theory is the only explanation for the diversity of species.

One who sees only random forces as the engine of that diversity may be able to offer an explanation of the human belief in right and wrong – claiming, for instance, that such belief evolved through “natural selection” to confer some biological advantage to humans.   But he cannot justify the belief itself as having any more import than any other utilitarian evolutionary adaptation

And so, faced with the Jewish conviction that ultimate meaning exists, and that the human being is the pinnacle not of blind evolution but of purposeful Creation, Amalek mocks.  Men, he sneers, are no different than the monkeys they so closely resemble, and the actions of both of no ultimate import

Interestingly, our resemblance to apes may figure in the pivotal account of Amalek’s attack on the Jews after the exodus from Egypt.  When Moses lifted his hands, the Torah recounts, the tide of the fight turned in favor of the Jewish People; when he lowered them, the opposite occurred.

“And do the [lifted] arms of Moses wage war?” asks the Talmud.  “Rather,” it explains, “when the Jews lifted their eyes heavenward, they were victorious…”  And so the lifting of Moses’ hands signifies the Jews’ beseeching G-d.

The etymology of the word Amalek is unclear.  But one might consider it a contraction of the Hebrew word “amal” – “labor” – and the letter with a “k” sound: “kuf,” whose letters spell the Hebrew word that means, of all things, “monkey.”

It is intriguing and perhaps significant that among all the earth’s creatures, only humans and primates can lift their arms above their heads.  And little short of astounding that precisely that movement figures so pivotally in the context of a battle between the nation proclaiming that human life has no special meaning – that men are but smooth-skinned apes – and the nation that proclaims human life has unique meaning.

Because, while primates can also lift their arms, the gesture is an empty one; when humans do the same thing, it can be the most potent expression of relating to the Divine.

When Moses lifts his arms, indicating the Jews’ turning to G-d, it can be seen as a declaration that ouramal,” our labor, is not the action of a monkey but the meaningful expression of human beings.

“And his hands were belief” – says the verse there, strangely.  Or not so strangely.  Moses’ hands declared belief in humanity’s unique relationship to G-d.

The Jews thus prevailed in the battle by negating Amalekism – by demonstrating their conviction that G-d exists and that we are beholden to Him.

On Purim, Jews the world over commemorate the crucial, if not final, victory over Amalek that took place in Persia in the time of Mordechai and Esther, by publicly reading the Book of Esther.  As has often been remarked, it is a unique scroll in the Jewish canon, the only one that makes no overt reference to G-d.  Instead, it forces us to seek Him in the account’s “chance” happenings, to perceive Him in seemingly “random” events.

By doing precisely that, our ancestors merited G-d’s protection and emerged victorious.  May our own rejection of the Amalek-idea in our time merit us the same. 


Haman, Ahmadinejad and Us

There’s more than passing irony in the fact that the most infamous anti-Semite of antiquity, the hater whose downfall Jews celebrate on Purim, was a prominent official of an empire centered in modern-day Iran.

Like the Persian royal advisor Haman, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reeks with his own considerable animus for Jews, having not only endorsed the destruction of the Jewish State but called into question the murder of six million Jews not 70 years ago. And just as his evil antecedent is today recalled with mockery and laughter, so too is Mr. Ahmadinejad providing future rejoicers rich comedic material – like his recent blaming of the terrorist bombing by Sunni Muslims of a Shiite Muslim shrine on “a group of Zionists” who nevertheless “failed in the face of Islam’s logic and justice.”

Similarly creative anti-Semitic rants are no farther away than the nearest Arab newspaper.

At the end of January, for instance, the Middle East Media Research Institute informs us, a Syrian government daily suggested that Israel created the avian flu virus in order to damage “genes carried only by Arabs.”  That the virus first appeared in East Asia was carefully fit into the theory: the germ was planted far from where Arabs live in order to mislead the world about its true origin.  Clever, those Jews.

And February saw newspapers in Mogilev, Belarus calling on citizens to boycott a new kosher bakery since, as the city’s leading paper put it: “It is a well-known fact that Jewish bread is made kosher by using sacrificial blood.”

Haman, more than 2000 years ago, was more subtle, preferring snide insinuations to outlandish conspiracy theories.  And he focused on Jewish cohesiveness and dedication to Jewish law.

For instance, says the Talmud, he informed the king of the sinister fact that Jews marry their own.  And, having discovered the rabbinical forbiddance of drinking wine that had been touched by a non-Jew (because of the possibility that he may have silently dedicated it to an idol), Haman told the Persian king: “If a fly should fall into their cup, they will discard the insect and drink the wine, but if your majesty should so much as touch the cup, they will cast it to the ground.”

Even today, although most contemporary Jew-haters claim to have only respect for Judaism – objecting only to things like Jewish “influence” (read: intelligence) or the Jewish state’s “mistreatment of Arabs” (read: acts of self-defense against terrorists) – common motifs in even the current arsenal of Jew-hatred include Jewish religious practices and religious Jews.  A glance at the Arab media’s cesspool of anti-Semitic (but Mohammed-free!) caricatures suffices to show that it disproportionately inspires images of black-hatted, black-cloaked and bespectacled men carrying oversized volumes of Talmud.

That fact, like the example of Haman, should serve to remind us how ugly is the derision of Jewish practices and ideals.  It’s something even we Jews may not always sufficiently realize.

Take a recent article in an Israeli newspaper.  It reported how a mobile communications company has seen fit to offer a cellphone without Internet access, in order to capture a larger share of the haredi, or “ultra-Orthodox” market (which, out of concern for clear Jewish standards of propriety, prefers its phones to be just phones).  The article’s tagline reads in part: “Company succumbs to haredi pressure.”  Pushy, those haredim.

In a similarly ungenerous vein, a “progressive” advocacy organization in Israel not long ago issued a press release describing (with words like “scream,” “yell,” and “sneer”) a scene on an Israeli bus, where a haredi passenger (the subject of the verbs) objects angrily to a woman who dared to sit toward the front of the vehicle.  Comparing the scene – which, it turns out, is an entirely imaginary one – to Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s, the release characterizes as “an affront to the basic principles of a democratic society” what in reality is a bus company program providing gender-separated buses in haredi neighborhoods.  Many haredi men and women prefer such travel arrangements and, since they had been patronizing private bus companies that provide it, Israel’s national bus company decided to compete for the haredi ridership.

At just about the same time, an Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics survey revealed that, among the country’s Jewish volunteers, 36% were haredim; 27%, non-haredi religious; 14% traditional; and 13% secular.  Nevertheless, Israel’s Orthodox are routinely, and almost exclusively, depicted negatively.

Their shunning of much of contemporary society’s materialistic desiderata, their dedication to full-time Torah-study (especially as it results in deferments from military service) and their insularity are regularly portrayed as backwardness, ingratitude and arrogance.  Yet no one disparages the Dalai Lama for his asceticism; conscientious objectors and some artists also receive draft deferments; and the ubiquity of crudeness in popular culture leaves religious Jews little choice but to remain, to the degree they can, within their more rarified world.

On Purim (this year, March 14), Jews are exhorted to seek to strengthen what binds them.  As a demonstration of unity and good will, they traditionally send packages of food items to one another.

Now there’s a Jewish tradition it would be hard for anyone (except perhaps Haman) to disparage.  And what a powerful opportunity it presents for disowning intra-Jewish negativity.

Those of us who are haredim should consider sending such mishloach manot to Jews who are not; and vice versa.

Not only will that help bring us all closer, it will help us merit that Mr. Ahmadinejad and company more quickly meet the fate of Haman and his.



[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

Fighting Iron With Irony

On a beautiful clear night in 1924 at Landsberg am Lech, where he was imprisoned by the Bavarian government, Adolf Hitler remarked to Rudolf Hess: “You know… it’s only the moon I hate.  For it is something dead and terrible and inhuman… It is as if there still lives in the moon a part of the terror it once sent down to earth… I hate it!”

A chill accompanied my first encounter with that quote.  Because the Jewish religious tradition sees the ever-rejuvenating, shining disk of the moon as a symbol of the Jewish people.  Indeed, the very first commandment we Jews were given as a people, while still awaiting the Exodus in Egypt, was to identify ourselves through our calendar with the moon. The moon Hitler feared.

There is much other oddness about Hitler with connections to ancient Jewish tradition, things like his fondness for ravens, in Jewish lore associated with cruelty; he went so far as to issue special orders protecting the birds.  And like his fascination with the art of Franz von Stuck (the artist who had the “greatest impact” on his life, he once said), whose major themes are snakes and sinister women.  In the Jewish mystical tradition, snakes evoke evil and its embodiment, Amalek; and there are hints of an antithetical relationship between the irredeemable wickedness of Amalek and women.

And then there is the matter of the most loathsome of Hitler’s henchmen, Julius Streicher, the editor of Der Sturmer, the premier journal of Jew-baiting.

At its peak in 1938, print runs of Streicher’s vile tabloid ran as high as 2,000,000.  A typical offering included a close-up of the face of a deformed Jew above the legend “The Scum of Humanity: This Jew says that he is a member of God’s chosen people.”  Another displayed a cartoon of a vampire bat with a grotesquely exaggerated nose and a Jewish star on its chest.  In yet another, a Jewish butcher was depicted snidely dropping a rat into his meat grinder and, elsewhere in the issue, the punctured necks of handsome German youths were shown bleeding into a bowl held by a Jew more gargoyle than human.

In 1935, speaking to a closed meeting of a Nazi student organization, Streicher, displaying an unarguably Amalekian approach, declared:

“All our struggles are in vain if the battle against the Jews is not fought to the finish.  It is not enough to get the Jews out of Germany. No, they must be destroyed throughout the entire world so that humanity will be free of them.

The suspicion that in Streicher’s blind, baseless, and absolute hatred of the Jews lay the legacy of Amalek makes the story of his capture and death nothing short of chilling.

Purim is the only Jewish holiday that celebrates the defeat of an Amalekite, Haman.  Even a passing familiarity with the Purim story is sufficient to know that the downfall of its villain is saturated with what seem to be chance ironies; he turns up at the wrong place at the wrong time, and all that he so carefully plans eventually comes to backfire on him in an almost comical way – a theme The Book of Esther characterizes with the words v’nahafoch hu, “ and it was turned upside down!”

Such “chance” happenings are the very hallmark, of Amalek’s defeat – a fact reflected in the “casting of lots” from which Purim takes its name.  Chance, Esther teaches us, is an illusion; God is in charge.  Amalek may fight with iron but he is defeated with irony.

As was Streicher.  In the days after Germany’s final defeat, an American major, Henry Plitt, received a tip about a high-ranking Nazi living in an Austrian town.  He accosted a short, bearded artist, who he though might be SS Chief Heinrich Himmler, and asked him his name.

“Joseph Sailer,” came the reply from the man, who was painting a canvas on an easel.

Plitt later recounted: “I don’t know why I said [it, but] I said, ‘And what about Julius Streicher?’”

Ya, der bin ich,” the man with the paintbrush responded.  “Yes, that is me.”

When Major Plitt brought his serendipitous catch to Berchtesgaden, he later recounted, a reporter told him that he had “killed the greatest story of the war.”  When he asked how, the reporter responded “Can you imagine if a guy named Cohen or Goldberg or Levy had captured this arch-anti-Semite, what a great story it would be?”

Major Plitt recalled telling the reporter “I’m Jewish” and how “that’s when the microphones came into my face and the cameras started clicking.

Another happy irony in Streicher’s life involved the fate of his considerable estate.  As reported in Stars and Stripes in late 1945, his considerable possessions were converted to cash and used to create an agricultural training school for Jews intending to settle in Palestine.  Just as Haman’s riches, as recorded in the Book of Esther, were bestowed upon his nemesis Mordechai.

There is a good deal more of interest in the life of Julius Streicher to associate him with Jewish traditions about Amalek.  But one of the most shocking narratives about him is the one concerning his death.  Streicher was of one of the Nazis tried, convicted, and hanged at Nuremberg in 1946.

During the trial, Streicher remained disgustingly true to form.  When the prosecution showed a film of the concentration camps as they had been found by the Allies, a spotlight was left on the defendants’ box for security reasons. Many present preferred to watch the defendants’ reactions rather than the mounds of bodies, matchstick limbs and common graves.  Few of the defendants could bear to watch the film for long.  Goering seemed calm at first, but eventually began to nervously wipe his sweaty palms.  Schacht turned away; Ribbentrop buried his face in his hands. Keitel wiped his reddened eyes with a handkerchief.  Only Streicher leaned forward throughout, looking anxiously at the film and excitedly nodding his head.

While no proof was found that Streicher had ever killed a Jew by his own hand, the tribunal nevertheless decided that his clear-cut incitement of others to the task constituted the act of a war criminal; and so he was sentenced, along with ten other defendants, to hang

And hang he did.  But not before taking the opportunity to share a few final words with the journalists present at the gallows.  “Heil Hitler. Now I go to God,” he announced.  And then, just before the trap sprang open, he blurted out most clearly: “Purim Feast 1946!” – an odd thing to say in any event, but especially so on an October morning.

The “Amalek-irony” of the Nuremberg executions doesn’t end there, either.  The Book of Esther recounts how Haman’s ten sons were hanged in Shushan. An eleventh child, a daughter, committed suicide earlier, according to an account in the Talmud.  At Nuremberg, while eleven men were condemned to execution by hanging, only ten were actually hanged.  The eleventh, the foppish, effeminate Goering, died in his cell only hours before the execution; he had crushed a hidden cyanide capsule between his teeth.

Something even more striking was noted by the late Belzer Rebbe. In scrolls of the Book of Esther, the names of the ten sons of Haman are unusually prominent; they are written in two parallel columns, a highly unusual configuration.  Odder still is the fact that three letters in the list, following an unexplained halachic tradition, are written very small, and one very large.  The large letter is the Hebrew character for the number six (Hebrew letters all have numeric values); the small letters, added together, yield the number 707.  If the large letter is taken to refer to the millennium and 707 to the year in the millennium, something fascinating emerges.  According to Jewish reckoning, the present year is 5762.  The year 5707 – the 707th year in the sixth millennium – was the year we know as 1946, when ten sworn enemies of the Jewish people were hanged in Nuremberg, just as ten others had been in Shushan more than two thousand years earlier.

The Book of Esther, (9:13), moreover, refers to the hanging of Haman’s sons in the future tense, after the event had been recounted, presaging, it might seem, some hanging yet to happen.

To believing Jews, the Holocaust was the tip of an unimaginable iceberg of evil, stretching far and deep into the past even as one of its ugly tips punctured the relative peace of the modern world.

And so, as we prepare to celebrate Purim and the downfall of the Amalekite Haman, especially these days, when Jew-hatred has once again made itself manifest in the world, we would do well to ponder that the evil he represents may have been defeated at times throughout history but it has not yet been vanquished.



[Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as public affairs director for Agudath Israel of America]

The Proof of the Purim

Something begun at Har Sinai reached its fruition at the time of the Purim miracle, according to Chazal.  “They established and they received” – Megillas Esther informs us, ostensibly about the holiday of Purim itself but, according to the Gemora in Mesechta Megilla, about a deeper idea as well:

“They established [at Purim] what they had already received [at Har Sinai].”

Somehow, through the Jews’ actions in Persia at the time of Mordechai and Esther, Klal Yisroel’s acceptance of the Torah that occurred hundreds of years earlier became fully realized.

Purim’s Passive Voice

 “Receiving” – or submission – is certainly an important Purim motif.  Esther, for her part, does not actively seek, but rather “passively” accepts, the position foisted on her by Achashveirosh, as she does his attentions (see Sanhedrin 74b).  The Purim miracle itself, for that matter, is anything but a forceful one, nothing like the splitting of the Yam Suf or the earth’s opening up to swallow Korach’s men; it, too, is pointedly subtle, an almost quiescent demonstration of Hashem’s power, which is only delicately evident in the turns of events.

Even the Mesechta dedicated to Purim begins in the passive voice: “The Megilla is read;” it reads, rather than the more usual, expected, active-voice introduction, “We read…”

But, aside from the vague notion of Purim – “passivity,” symbolizing “acceptance” of the Torah or “submission” to Hashem, what – to paraphrase Rashi’s famous comment regarding Shmitta – has Purim to do with Har Sinai?

Coercion or Conviction?

 The answer to the question likely lies on a path that unfolds from an even more fundamental query: What exactly was missing in the first place when our ancestors received the Torah?  How, in other words, was that seminal event – at which the Jewish nation was charged with the mission that justifies Creation itself, and said “Na’aseh v’nishma” in unison – somehow incomplete?

 As it happens, the Gemora itself asks and answers that very question, pointing to the fact that “Hashem held the mountain over the Jews’ heads like a barrel,” forcing them, in effect, to accept the Torah.  The Maharal explains that the “forcing” can be understood as referring to the powerful, overwhelming nature of the experience… the fearful thunder, lighting, the terrifying interaction of human and divine.

The sheer awe and trauma of Mattan Torah, the Gemora teaches us, is itself a “flaw” of sorts in the experience, for it gives the rest of the world a “remonstration” against the Jews, the claim that it was the duress born of the forceful, overpowering nature of the event that caused our ancestors to accept Hashem and His Torah, not true conviction and will.

Choosing to See

 Enter Purim.  That the Jews chose – sans thunder and lighting, sans Hashem’s undeniable, overpowering words – to respond to Haman’s threat with prayer, fasting and teshuva, and then to see Hashem’s hand in the individually unremarkable events that led to their salvation from Haman’s plan…that was true proof of their utter acceptance of Hashem and His will, the conclusive refutation of the world’s claim that our acceptance of His Torah was somehow lacking.

So it was by their having accepted Hashem where one could so easily have “missed” Him, their choosing to see His hand and to submit themselves to Him, that the Jews of Shushan – and by extension all Jews – confirmed that the Jewish acceptance of the Torah was – and is – wholehearted, sincere and pure.

 “They established [at Purim] what they had already received [at Har Sinai]

Intoxication and Revelation

Interesting enough, one of the ways that Chazal say a person’s true nature is revealed is “b’koso” – “in his cup” – in his behavior when his inhibitions are diluted by strong drink.

And on Purim, in such striking contrast to the rest of the Jewish year, there is a mitzvah to drink wine to excess.  Needless to say, if such drinking is likely to cause improper behavior, it is forbidden, and so the mitzvah d’Rabbanan (part of that of seudas Purim) could only have been enacted on the assumption that only the essential good of the Jew will be revealed by his drunkenness.

And, indeed, among true b’nei Torah who endeavor to fulfill Purim’s requirement “libesumi” in its most straightforward sense, what emerges is not the anger and licentiousness that the larger world, for good reason, has come to associate with inebriation, but rather a holy, if uninhibited, “teshuva-mode” of mind; mechillos (forgiveness for transgression, real and imagined) are sought, deep feelings expressed.

Thus the revelation of our true nature that the Purim-mitzva provides is most pointedly and perfectly reminiscent of the revelation of Jews’ wholehearted acceptance of Hashem that took place at the time of the Purim miracle!  With our masks (another Purim motif) removed, we show our true selves, and, hopefully, they are selves that are in consonance with true, uncompromised Kabbolos HaTorah.


Peering into the Barrel

What is poignantly noteworthy is that even the language the Gemora uses to describe how we were “forced” to accept the Torah at Har Sinai might subtly allude to that astonishing mitzvah of Purim, and to its deeper significance.

For “holding the mountain over their heads” would have surely been quite sufficient to convey the idea of coercion, would it not?  Why add the worlds “like a barrel”?

In Pirkei Avos, though, we are taught not “to look at the container, but at what it holds”.

 And a gigis (“barrel”), throughout the Gemora, is something that holds an intoxicating beverage.

Because of Purim, our Creator looks, in other words, not at the “coercion” of the barrel held over our ancestors’ heads, but at the deeper truth revealed by what such barrels contain – at the truth about our essence revealed by Purim’s wine.

© 1996 The Jewish Observer