Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Smile, It’s Purim

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This year, Purim falls on Friday. As if that isn’t bad enough, Uncle Sam did his best to put a further damper on Purim by instituting Daylight Savings Time early enough to cause Purim to begin later than usual.

But no matter how hard anyone tries, Purim is Purim and the simcha of the day is something no one will ever be able to take away from us.

Purim speaks to us on so many different levels that everyone, from the youngest children to the most seasoned citizens, has an extra spring in their step and boundless smiles, as Purim comes around again.

The Megillah tells a story everyone can relate to. Children relate to the tale of the vanquishing of evil. Who doesn’t know the story of Vashti’s tail and many pimples? Which child can’t dream about Queen Esther and her rise to power in time to save her doomed people?

The more learned among us review Maseches Megillah and gain a much deeper appreciation of all that transpired. Every year, additional seforim are published around this time, drumming in the many messages of the day into our psyches.

Even those who are more simple and unable to study are fascinated with the story. Everyone can point to someone they view as an Achashveirosh, a fickle person playing both sides of the fence, making a foolish spectacle of himself as he deludes himself into thinking that all are worshipping him. Behind his back, they are all giggling at him and his stupidity. Blinded by his vanity, he sees it all as hero worship. Little does he know.

No one has to look far to find a Vashti. They seem to be all over the place. We all know someone we can caricature as Haman. We often see virtuous Mordechai-esque figures ridiculed, even by their own people.

Many times we find ourselves in dire situations from which no escape seems possible. Purim tells us to never give up hope. Purim teaches us that all that transpires in this world is part of a Divine plan. It will all turn out for the good, if we are only patient and follow G-d’s word. The Purim buzzword, “venahafoch hu”, reminds us that Hashem can bring about a stunning reversal of a nation’s destiny in the blink of an eye.

To celebrate the miracle of Purim and the joy of knowing that we are under Hashem’s constant supervision even when His presence is hidden, we are commanded to drink so much that we can no longer tell the difference between arur Haman and boruch Mordechai.

It is true that all throughout the year we are confronted with all kinds of people and the vast spectrum of human behavior, from righteous and noble, to evil, and the many shades in between. We can usually tell them apart without much difficulty. No one mistakes a Haman for a Mordechai. Quite often, however, evil masquerades as virtue and the task of unmasking the imposter can be difficult. It demands constant vigilance and sensitivity, as well as emotional and intellectual honesty.

Once a year, we are released from this demanding task, and that is on Purim, when one is in fact urged to become so intoxicated he mixes up Haman and Mordechai.

But this once-a-year petur underscores the extreme importance of our job during the rest of the year: to constantly scrutinize ourselves and our surroundings to guard against evil in its myriad guises.

We live in a time where up is down and down is up. We have to resist being blown about and confused by the prevailing winds - not only in our own private lives but in the society around us as well.

How are we supposed to maintain equilibrium in a topsy-turvy world? How are we supposed to keep faith that good will be victorious over evil?

When good things happen to bad people and bad things to good people, the Megillah reminds us that appearances are deceptive; the “wheel of fortune” is manipulated by Hashem, and the one who seems to be rising may soon be falling. The one who seems to be done can quickly rebound. The Megillah reminds us that all occurrences are part of a Divine plan that we can’t expect to understand until the entire story has unfolded.

The evil force may appear to be advancing, but it is only in order for Hashgacha to set that power up for a more drastic descent to the death. Evil may be on the ascent, but it is but a passing phenomenon, destined to fail. Goodness and virtue may appear frail and unimposing, but those who follow the path of G-d will ultimately triumph.

In every generation they plot our destruction, but we are still here, thriving and prospering. And we will do so, with Hashem’s help, until the coming of Moshiach.

That message resonates for all time, wherever Jews find themselves. As we masquerade about, exchanging mishloach manos with friends and dishing out Purim gelt to the less fortunate, we tap into the kedusha and message of the holy day.

That message never loses its timeliness. Every year we gain a new appreciation of what took place during those critical times and its relevance to us today. We also gain a new perspective. Was Haman consumed by hatred or was it jealousy that drove him mad? Was he a megalomaniac or was he just a common anti-Semite? Or was he all of the above?

The lesson for us is that we should avoid all these forms of evil. Humility might have saved Haman just as his high status as a trusted confidant of King Achashveirosh could have - if he had only been satisfied with that prestige. Had he been less greedy for power, he might not have suffered a devastating downfall and would not have ended up on the gallows.

Had he not been in such a mad rush for power, he could have continued climbing until he reached the pinnacle. He would have remained there at the height of power instead of ending up dangling from the end of a rope.

As we read the Purim story, we think of people we know who engage in self-destructive behavior and we thank Hashem that we are not like them. We internalize the tale and take its message to heart. We feel grateful for the clarity that enables us to be happy with our lot.

Many times we wish we had the guts to do what is right, but we are worried about the repercussions. What will people say about us? Perhaps they will call us baalei machlokes or say that we are triggering the wrath of officialdom upon ourselves or the community. Then we read the Megillah and study the various Midrashim about what Mordechai Hatzaddik did. We realize that his actions, though unpopular when he did them, in fact led to the rescue of the Jewish people.

Not everyone in his time agreed with him, but he was vindicated by the Megillah and Chazal.

No, this does not mean that we are to condone headstrong, irresponsible behavior, but it means that we should scrupulously follow halacha, and not fear negative consequences.

Mordechai’s words, “Umi yodeiah im l’eis kazos higaat l’malchus,” ring in the ears of every Jew who is about to make a fateful decision. As one weighs the risks of taking the more ambitious but nobler route, Mordechai’s profound words goad him on.

Those words are an eternal charge inspiring one not to be daunted by the obstacles, but to pour one’s energies into productive projects that benefit themselves and/or our people.

Esther was afraid that she was doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. Mordechai was pushing her to reach out to Achashveirosh eleven months ahead of the date that Haman had chosen on which to wipe out the Jewish people. She would have preferred to stall, in the hope that between Nissan and the next Adar there would be a better time for her to appeal on behalf of her brethren. Why did it have to be now?

The tendency to postpone doing even what we know is crucial for us to do, is familiar to most of us. We say that tomorrow will be a better time. We say that we have several months in which to get it done. Maybe next week we will feel better. Maybe next month the other guy will be in a better mood. Why do I have to rush to do it now?

Mordechai’s message calls out, telling us: “Now is the time. Don’t push it off. Don’t find excuses to do it some other time. Time is of the essence.”

Faced with situations from which we think there is no way we can extricate ourselves without getting hurt, we can remember Queen Esther and gain strength from the knowledge that by doing the right thing, she saved her people from certain destruction. In following Mordechai’s instructions, she became immortalized in the consciousness of the Jewish people as a righteous and strong woman who put the fate of her people ahead of her personal safety and happiness.

The Jews of Shushan also taught us a message that carries down through the ages. They had given up all hope. They felt doomed. The lot was drawn and their fate was sealed. But Mordechai and Esther taught them the power of prayer and fasting. They rose to the challenge, and thanks to the leadership of Mordechai and Esther, G-d heard their tefillos and accepted their teshuvah. A day marked for sadness and death was transformed into a day of celebration and deliverance.

During the rest of the year, we may get despondent and lose our smiles, but on Purim we are reminded to never become depressed or downcast

We all have problems, everyone has a pekel, and on Purim we are reminded that just as our ancestors were delivered from despair, so too can we be spared of our burdens in our day.

The sun will shine again. Good will triumph over evil.

It’s Purim. Come on, raise your feet in dance, turn your lips into smiles and erase the frown. Stop dragging your feet. Let the happiness wipe away the sadness today and every day. Be optimistic, not pessimistic. Let the spirit - and spirits - of Purim pervade your psyche and influence your outlook. Simcha is contagious.

It happened in Shushan; it will happen here, too.

Happy Purim.


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