Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Purim is Personal

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

It was at that last Purim hour, during the moments when day slowly recedes to night and the sky begins to darken. Inside the crowded room, a rebbi and talmidim surrounded a table, as songs, Torah and quips joined into a burst of sound, the holy noise of Purim rising heavenward.

At one end of the long table, its surface covered with a wine-stained cloth and festively-arranged bottles, a talmid raised a question. He quoted the well-known Gemara, referred to extensively in halachic discussion of the obligations of the Purim seudah, which recounts how Rabbah rose and slaughtered Rav Zeira (Megillah 7b).

Rav Zeira had accepted Rabbah’s invitation to join him for the seudas Purim. Rabbah fulfilled the dictum of Chazal to drink, and he became inebriated to the point that he actually slaughtered his guest. When he realized what transpired, he begged for Divine mercy and Rav Zeira was revived.

Rishonim and Acharonim utilize p’shat, remez, drush and sod to explain the Gemara. But the talmid had a basic question. Once Rav Zeira’s soul had left him, what was Rabbah thinking when he rose to daven? Can a person request techiyas hameisim? Can one ask that the order of creation be reversed?

The rebbi smiled, enjoying the question, and the talmidei chachomim present offered various interpretations. Then the rebbi spoke just one sentence. “It was Purim,” he said, “and in the season of Purim, it isn’t a kasha. One perceives, on the deepest level, that there is no teva and neis. It’s all one. Ein od milvado.”

On Purim we can ask for anything, because after reading the Megillah, it becomes clear once again that there is but one Hand, and nothing else, that bestows and controls life.

The men around the table sang another song, because at that moment, it was so obvious, almost tangible, that it’s all Him. How can one not rejoice?

Purim is different than any other yom tov. Even when all the moadim will be but happy memories, Purim will have its place on the calendar, a joyous festival in the era of ultimate joy. What it is about Purim that generates so much eternal joy and elation?

Even in the choshech and hester of today, when hearts are numb and emotion comes hard, we can still sense it. There is a mitzvah to be happy on every yom tov, yet despite our best efforts, we don’t always manage to attain the level of happiness that we do on Purim. On Purim, we all feel it.

Why? Because Purim is personal.

Like a beacon of light on a dark, stormy night, it shines into our world. Every one of us is struggling. We have days when the rushing waves of tzaros threaten to engulf us. We encounter people and situations we find intolerable. We all sometimes feel lost and abandoned. We suffer from a lack of proper leadership, agonizing under new laws and directions the country faces. So many people we know are sick and in need of a refuah, or suffering in other ways and eagerly awaiting a yeshuah.

Purim is an unfurled banner that reads, “Revach vehatzolah ya’amod laYehudim.” Help can come. Help will come. Don’t despair. Purim teaches us all that transpires to us in this world is part of Hashem’s plan. It will all turn out for the good if we are patient and follow Hashem’s word. We sing various tunes to the eternal words of “venahafoch hu,” reminding us that Hashem can quickly bring about a stunning reversal of any situation. At no time should we give up hope of recovery, no matter how bad the prognosis.

The Baal Shem Tov once traveled through a tiny, forlorn town consisting of a few farmhouses and fields. The locals were suffering from a severe drought. The lack of rainwater threatened the crops and their livelihood was in jeopardy.

The Baal Shem Tov went into their shul and saw how the entire town - men, women and children - was present, listening respectfully to the words of a visiting maggid. The preacher castigated the people for their misdeeds, telling them that their offensive behavior was causing Heaven to withhold blessing.

When the maggid finished, the Baal Shem Tov rose to speak. “What do you want from these Jews?” he asked the maggid. “They work long, hard hours, toiling under a blazing sun all day. When they have a few minutes of peace, they hurry to the shul to daven and learn a bit. What type of message are you giving them?”

Tayere Yidden,” the Baal Shem Tov said, turning to the crowd of farmers, “this is what you must know. We have a powerful Borei, a Creator with limitless abilities, and He can do anything and everything. He loves us and wants to shower us with His blessings. So Yidden, come, let us dance.”

The Baal Shem Tov led the simple townspeople in a joyous rikkud. A circle of Jews began singing their thanks and praise to the Master of the Universe.

They exited the shul and encountered a drenching downpour. The rain turned the fields into mud. The happy townspeople danced their way home.

This is the lesson of Purim. Even as we are bound by the rules of teva, a neis is still possible. Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah have the power to be maavir any gezeirah. When Esther went into Achashveirosh, she didn’t ask what her chances of success were. When Mordechai commanded her to appeal the case of the Jewish people to the king, they didn’t consider what their chances of victory were. They davened, fasted and did what was right. Armed with emunah and tefillah, their efforts in teva succeeded.

Throughout the year, we are confronted by various types of people and the vast spectrum of human behavior, from righteous and noble to incorrigibly evil and the many shades in between.

We live in a world where up is down and down is up. We have to resist being blown about and led astray, but no matter what comes over us and the world, we must maintain our equilibrium and faith.

When good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people, the Megillah reminds us that appearances are deceptive. The “wheel of fortune” is manipulated by Hashem for His own purposes. The Megillah reminds us all that happens is part of a Divine plan, which we can’t expect to understand until the entire story has unfolded.

An evil force may appear to be advancing, but it is only in order for Hashgochah to set up that power for a more drastic descent to defeat. Evil may be on the ascent, but it is merely a passing phenomenon and is destined to fail. Goodness and virtue may appear frail and unimposing, but those who follow Hashem’s path will ultimately triumph.

In every generation, there are evil people who 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 distributing Purim gelt to the less fortunate, we tap into the kedushah and message of the holy day.

That message never loses its timeliness.

Those blessed with discerning ears hear the enduring relevance in the holy Megillah. One year, an expert baal kriah, Reb Avrohom Moshe Kirshenbaum, was brought to lain the Megillah for the Brisker Rov. After the kriah, the rov was in a particularly joyous mood and he commented, “Ess iz nisht kein shaylah tzu a besser’n tzu a shvacher’n, ess iz an andere mashma’us ingantzen.”

A well-read Megillas Esther tells the story better. The quality of the kriah gives new significance to the message. Like a symphony, the discriminating listener appreciates it on a different level. To great men, Megillas Esther is an experience.

Every year, we gain 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? Perhaps he was all of the above.

The lesson for us is that we should avoid all these forms of evil. Humility may have saved Haman, as would have his high status as a trusted confidant of King Achashveirosh had he 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 so mad for power, he could have continued climbing until he reached the pinnacle. He would have remained there, at the height of power, instead of dangling from the end of a rope.

As we read the story, we think of people we know who engage in self-destructive behavior and 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.

Everyone has times when they fail. To err is human. The test is how we recover from those situations and continue on after experiencing a setback.

Do we become withdrawn and despondent or do we maintain our faith in Hashem and in ourselves and force ourselves to carry on with dignity and grace?

When things don’t go our way, do we forsake hope or do we have bitachon that the next day will bring better news and happier developments?

Sometimes, it takes years for the yeshuah to arrive, but salvation comes only to those who maintain their faith and optimism. Those who give up lose.

Rav Yitzchok Hutner once faced his talmidim after the sun had set on Purim, in the happy exhaustion of teshuvah mitoch simcha, and cried out, “Purim hut nisht kein Havdolah, we don’t recite Havdolah as we do after other festivals, because there is no ‘after Purim.’ Purim is meant to stay with us.”

Many times, we wish we had the guts to do what is right, but we are worried about the repercussions and concerned about what people will say and write about us. Then we read the Megillah and study what Mordechai Hatzaddik did and realize that his actions, though unpopular, in fact led to the rescue of the Jewish people.

This is not to be understood as giving blanket permission for headstrong, irresponsible behavior, but rather to convey the truth that when one acts according to halachah, he need not fear negative consequences.

Mordechai’s words, “Umi yodeia im le’eis kazos higaat lamalchus,” should ring in the ears of every Jew who is about to make a fateful decision. As one weighs the risks of taking the seemingly more ambitious or the nobler route, Mordechai’s profound words encourage him to do what is proper and resist the temptation to act expediently instead of doing what is right.

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

There is a multi-million dollar industry in this country that revolves around motivation. People pay top dollar to hear speeches or purchase books they hope will motivate and encourage them. Most people sense they possess more potential than they utilize and are desperate to be inspired and empowered.

Megillas Esther is a motivator, with the ability to empower every Jew. Other nissim were lemaalah min hateva, while Purim was within teva. That inspires us, because when we see events that are painful and frightening, we are reminded through Purim that miracles happen via the course of natural events. We don’t have to await supernatural occurrences to spare us and to save us from that which frightens us. Rather, we should believe that through the natural course of human events, Hashem can save us. 

Umi yodeia…

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

The temptation is always great to postpone doing what we know we must do. Mordechai’s message to us is not to wait and not to postpone and not to delay doing what must be done.

Esther is repeatedly tested throughout the period in which the story takes place. Each time, it appears that there is no way she can outmaneuver the evil facing her. She emerges as the heroine of the story because she is galvanized by her hopes rather than her fears. She relies upon the sage counsel of her uncle, the Rosh Sanhedrin. With Mordechai’s support, she refuses to allow fear to paralyze her.

Faced with situations from which we think there is no way we can extricate ourselves without getting hurt, we should remember Queen Esther and gain strength from the knowledge that by doing the right thing, she saved her people from certain destruction. By 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, too, 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. Thanks to the leadership of Mordechai and Esther, Hashem heard their tefillos and accepted their teshuvah. A day marked for sadness and death was transformed into a day of celebration and deliverance.

On Purim, we are reminded not to be depressed or downcast. Despondency is not the Jewish way.

Rav Yaakov Galinsky once commented that in Novardok, Purim was a more uplifting day than Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, he said, was all about the past - teshuvah, charotah and azivas hacheit. Purim, on the other hand, was all about a bright future and how glorious things might yet be.

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

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

It’s Purim. Dance, smile and be happy. Look at the positive. Be optimistic.

Rav Shlomo Bloch wrote a diary of life in the Talmud Torah of Kelm. He describes Purim in the town whose name is synonymous, until this very day, with single-minded avodah. In Kelm, the talmidim took the mandate to drink alcohol on Purim very seriously, he writes, and the entire community seemed to be “a tefach higher” than usual, suspended above the ground in joy and spiritual uplift. But the moment the sky darkened over Kelm, and night fell the talmidim returned to their regular, focused selves and order ruled once again.

To a student of psychology, it might seem extraordinary. To one who appreciates the profound strength of Kelmer talmidim, it’s simple. Purim for them was not an escape from reality. For them, and for us as well, it is an injection of reality which empowers the Jewish people with the clarity and awareness to continue on. And it never ends, for there is no Havdolah.

We seize the gift of Purim and incorporate it into our daily avodah, newly charged.

Permit the spirit of Purim to overtake you. There is a splendid future for each of us. About Haman it says, “Vayeitzei bayom hahu sameiach vetov lev.” On that day, he was glad. The joy of reshoim is temporal and fleeting. We are people of tomorrow. The commandment to wage war on Amaleik is given for “machor,” tomorrow. We live with an awareness of and anticipation for a bright, brilliant tomorrow.

Ah freilichen Purim and ah freilichen tomid, inspired by the message of Purim. Velo yeivoshu lanetzach kol hachosim bo.


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