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Torah Attitude: Parashas Ki Sisa / Purim: Eat, drink and be holy
A holy day Today is the holiday of Purim. We celebrate Purim with eating and drinking, as well as other forms of merriment. However, the Kabbalists say that Purim is a very holy day. Yom Kippur is widely regarded by all Jews as the holiest day of the year. However, the Ari-Zal teaches that "Yom Kippurim" is a "yom" a day, "ki" like, "purim" Purim. Yom Kippur is compared to Purim, for in some respects, Purim is considered holier than Yom Kippur. Obviously, this needs clarification.
Fasting on Holy Days
In order to understand how this can be, we must analyze the deeper essence of Purim. Under certain circumstances we are permitted to fast on Shabbat and Yom Tov. The reason we eat on Shabbat and on Yom Tov is to give us pleasure. If someone has greater pleasure by fasting, then he is permitted to fast.
The Talmud (Pesachim 68b) tells us of Mar, son of Rabina, who would fast every day of the year, except on Shavuous, the eve of Yom Kippur, and Purim. It appears that there is a connection between these three days. However, Shavuous is the day we commemorate the revelation at Mount Sinai, when we received the Torah. On the eve of Yom Kippur we prepare for the holiest day of the year, the final climax of the days of awe and judgment. Purim, on the other hand, is a day of feasting and drinking. It is difficult to see any common denominator between them, for what do the physical acts of merriment on Purim have in common with the spirituality of Shavuous and Erev Yom Kippur? We further need to clarify what is so special about Shavuous, Erev Yom Kippur and Purim that it is more important to eat on these days than on Shabbos and the other festivals, such as Succoth and Pesach?
The Torah Connection
The answer to these questions has to do with the special nature of the Torah. Shavuous, Erev Yom Kippur and Purim all have a special connection to our receiving of the Torah, and that is why it is important to eat on these days.
The connection between Shavuous and the receiving of the Torah is obvious. This is the day that we received the Torah at Mount Sinai.
There is also a special connection between Erev Yom Kippur and the Torah. On Shavuous the Jewish people heard how G'd said the Ten Commandments. But later when they worshipped the golden calf, Moses broke the Tablets. The Jewish people repented and begged G'd to forgive them for their errors. This process of repentance took 120 days, from Shavuous until Yom Kippur. Only on Yom Kippur did G'd accept their repentance and gave them a second set of Tablets (see Shemos 34:1-4).
The connection between Purim and the giving of the Torah is somewhat more complicated. The Midrash relates that G'd offered the Torah to all the nations. Each nation asked G'd about the contents of the Torah before making any commitment to accept it. They all refused to accept the Torah, because it would require a major change in their lifestyle. G'd first went to the descendants of Esau. When they heard that it says in the Torah "You may not kill" they said: "We are descendants of a murderer and we live by the strength of our sword." G'd then went to the nations of Ammon and Moab, the descendants of Lot. As they were told that the Torah commands not to commit adultery, they answered "Our existence only came about through the adultery of Lot with his daughters and this is our way of life." After that G'd went and found the descendants of Yishmael. They also asked what it says in the Torah. G'd told them that it says: "You may not steal." They responded and said, "We, as our ancestor, are a nation of robbers. This is our essence." The Midrash concludes that there was not a nation that G'd did not knock of their door. Not only did they not accept the Torah, they did not even keep the seven Noachide laws.
Finally, G'd approached the Jewish people. Contrary to the reaction of all the other nations of the world, the Jewish people unconditionally agreed to accept the Torah and all of its obligations. In the famous "declaration of dependence", the Jewish people proclaimed, "Everything that G'd has to say, we will do and we will obey!" (Shemos 24:7).
After the Jewish people unconditionally accepted the Torah, something very strange happened. As it says (Shemos 19:16-17): "On the third day when it was morning, there was thunder and lightning and a heavy cloud on the mountain, and the sound of the shofar was very powerful, and the entire people that was in the camp shuddered. Moses brought the people forth from the camp toward G'd, and they stood under the mountain."
The Talmud (Shabbos 88a) explains that G'd lifted Mount Sinai into the air and held it over the Jewish people. With this He threatened that if they did not accept the Torah then He would drop the mountain on top of them. This raises some serious questions and concerns. The Talmud (ibid) states that this invalidated the Jewish people's acceptance of the Torah, for what is the value of a coerced acceptance? The Midrash Tanchuma (Noah 3) further asks, if the Jewish people had already voluntarily and unconditionally agreed to accept the Torah, what was the purpose to force them to accept the Torah again? Could G'd not have achieved the same by just telling them what to do?
The Maharal answers that if G'd had not made this request with force, it would have been possible for the Jewish people to (G'd forbid) later reject the Torah. Even if one generation accepted the Torah, it is not necessarily binding on a later generation. For example, one generation of Americans accepted the monarchy of Great Britain as their sovereign ruler. Many years later, a new generation of Americans rejected their ancestor's choice and declared their independence.
When G'd lifted the mountain over the Jewish people and forced them to accept the Torah, it prevented later generations from severing their relationship with the Torah and G'd. Many different groups of Jews have tried to declare their independence from the Torah and G'd throughout the generations. None were successful to remove the Jewish nation from its special bond with G'd and His Torah. The Maharal further explains that when G'd forced the Jewish people to accept the Torah a second time under duress, He showed that the Torah is indispensable and must be maintained by the Jewish people at all times. In effect, G'd forced Himself into a relationship with the Jewish people that could never be severed. Neither G'd nor any future generation of Jews have the ability to eradicate this relationship.
Purim and Torah
In Megillas Esther, that is read on Purim, it says (Esther 9:27, emphasis added): "Therefore because of all that was written in this letter, and because of what they had experienced and what had happened to them, the Jews confirmed and undertook upon themselves, and their posterity, and upon all who might join them, to observe these two days, without fail, in the manner prescribed, and at the proper time each year."
Megillas Esther is one of the 24 books of Scriptures and does not contain any excess or unnecessary words. However, the expression "confirmed and undertook" seems redundant. If someone undertakes to do something, there should be no need to confirm it at the same time.
The Talmud (ibid) explains that this "confirmation" does not refer to the Jewish people's undertaking to observe Purim. Rather, it refers to their renewed acceptance of the entire Torah. This verse relates that the Jewish people confirmed what they had already undertaken. In a sense, this acceptance of the Torah was even greater than the acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai. When the Jewish people were gathered at Mount Sinai, they had just experienced the greatest miracles of all time, including witnessing the splitting of the sea, receiving the Manna, and so on. On top of that, the Torah was forced upon them. But in the Story of Esther, there were no obvious miracles to encourage them to accept the Torah. It is interesting to note that G'd's name does not even appear in the text at all. This alludes to the fact that G'd's involvement in the events of the Story of Esther was hidden. Yet, when the Jewish people triumphed over their enemies, they confirmed their relationship with G'd and the Torah of their own free will. That is why Purim is associated with Shavuous and Yom Kippur as a day of accepting the Torah.
Eat, drink and be holy
We still need to clarify what eating and drinking have to do with the accepting of the Torah. The Rambam (Maimonides) writes that any person in the world, who so desires, can serve G'd by elevating himself to higher states of holiness. In all religions and cultures there are G'd fearing people who dedicate themselves to serve G'd. Some live in monasteries. Some live as hermits on the peaks of mountains. However, they all seek to separate themselves from the world around them by living in abstinence and poverty, even in total isolation. The Torah, on the other hand, instructs the Jewish Nation (Vayikra 18:5): "And you shall observe My decrees and My laws, which man shall carry out and by which he shall live." G'd wants us to integrate our lives with the physical world around us, to eat and drink, to get married and reproduce guided by the laws of the Torah. Rather than to isolate ourselves from the physical world, G'd instructs us to elevate the mundane to higher spiritual levels. On Shavuous, Erev Yom Kippur and Purim, we celebrate that G'd chose us to be the people of the Torah. We confirm our acceptance of the Torah by eating a festive meal in order to elevate our lives to serve G'd with our everyday activities.
This especially comes true on Purim. Whereas on Yom Kippur we restrain ourselves with fasting and prayers, on Purim we rejoice and celebrate. However, everything is within the guidelines of the Torah. This is an expression of the highest and holiest level of relationship with G'd and His Torah.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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