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Torah Attitude: Parashas Tzav/Purim: Atonement by feasting

Dedication: This Torah Attitude is dedicated with much love by Michael, Sally, Robyn, Jamie and Adam to DAVID DEVERETT in honour of his Bar Mitzvah. Mazel tov!

Summary

It seems appropriate that we seek to learn from the story of Purim what caused G'd's anger at the time of Mordechai and Esther. The Heavenly Accuser was aroused. The general atmosphere at the royal feast made it totally unacceptable for any member of the Jewish community to attend. The accusations of the Heavenly Accuser opened up the ability for Haman to put his plan forward to annihilate the Jewish people. Haman's complaint against the Jewish people reflected the serious accusation that the Jewish people were not listening to their Torah leaders. We find a somewhat similar situation when Haman's ancestors, the Amalekites, came to attack the Jewish people after the crossing of the Red Sea. The Or HaChaim explains that there were three pre-conditions for the Jewish people prior to their being ready to accept the Torah on Mount Sinai. It was their slackness in Torah study and observance, their lack of humbleness and modesty, and their disunity, that set the scene for the attack by Amalek in Refidim. Esther instructed Mordechai to assemble all the Jews to be found in Shushan and fast for her. On Purim we seek atonement by feasting.

Story of Purim

We mentioned last week (Parashas Vayikra-Zachor: How could G'd allow eight yeshiva students to be brutally murdered?), that the tragedy that happened on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Adar calls upon each and every one to perform a personal reckoning and introspection. As this took place in the first hours of the month that we celebrate Purim, it seems appropriate that we seek to learn from the story of Purim what caused G'd's anger at the time of Mordechai and Esther, and how did the Jewish people manage to turn things around.

Heavenly Accuser

The Midrash Rabba (Esther 7:13) relates that when Mordechai heard that Ahashvarous invited the Jewish inhabitants of Shushan to his lavish feast, Mordechai instructed them not to go. They did not listen to their Torah leader and 18,500 Jews participated in the feast. This, says the Midrash, aroused the Heavenly Accuser to appear in front of G'd and say, "Master of the universe, how long will You cling to a nation that turn away from You? They are not repenting to turn back to You. If You permit, I will go and destroy this nation." G'd tried to defend His beloved children but in the end agreed to the accusation and allowed the Heavenly Accuser to proceed with his plan.

Inappropriate political feast

The reason, why the Jews did not listen to Mordechai, was due to the fact that the feast was not just an outlet for partying and entertainment. Ahashvarous had a political agenda why he invited his subjects from all 127 countries in his domain. He was really a commoner who had only entered the royal family through his marriage to Vashti, a descendant of King Nebuchadnezzar. The Talmud (Megillah 11a) teaches that Ahashvarous invested substantial sums to reach his goal and become the monarch of this vast empire. He used the first years of his rulership to organize himself in his newly appointed capital of Shushan. Now in the third year of his reign, the time had come to establish his connections with all his countries and provinces, in general, and with the population of Shushan, in particular. Ahashvarous knew that nothing unites people more than partying together. The political lay-leaders of the Jewish community in Shushan therefore felt that it was of extreme importance that they attend the feast. Declining the royal invitation could easily be interpreted as a lack of acceptance of the new monarch. The Talmud (Megillah 12a) points out that Ahashvarous was extremely careful to accommodate everyone. Whoever requested kosher food would be provided with food to the highest standard that even Mordechai would accept. The Jewish political leaders therefore felt that there was no reason not to attend. However, Mordechai understood that it takes a lot more to make an event appropriate for Jewish participation than just the kashruth of the food being served. The general atmosphere at the feast, with limitless wine flowing, and with entertainment to satisfy everyone's desires, made it totally unacceptable for any member of the Jewish community to attend. The Midrash relates how correct Mordechai's suspicion was. Many of those who went ate and drank and became intoxicated to the extent that they fell down in a drunken stupor.

Scattered and dispersed

Unbeknownst to the Jews of Shushan, this was the real problem that they faced. And these accusations of the Heavenly Accuser opened up the ability for Haman to put his plan forward to annihilate the Jewish people. We read in the Book of Esther (3:8) that when Haman came to Ahashvarous to receive permission to exterminate the Jewish people he said, "There is one nation scattered and dispersed among the nations in all the countries of your kingdom, and their laws are different than any other nation. They do not observe the laws of the king, and it is not worth for the king to leave them [alive] ..." The commentaries explain that whatever Haman said down here on earth was a direct reflection of the Heavenly Accuser's charges against the Jewish people. As such, there is a deeper meaning contained in Haman's words. When Haman said that the Jewish people were "scattered and dispersed", on a deeper level this means that there was a lack of unity amongst them. They did not listen to their Torah leaders and everyone did as he pleased and understood. This was a classic example of what King Solomon says (Mishlei 18:1) "The one who seeks desire, sets himself apart."

King

The Talmud (Megillah 15a) explains that when it says "king" (as opposed to when it says King Ahashvarous) in the Book of Esther, on a deeper level it refers to the King of kings, G'd Himself. That being the case, Haman's complaint against the Jewish people reflected the serious accusation that the Jewish people were not listening to their Torah leaders and thereby disobeyed G'd's laws.

Amalek and Refidim

It is interesting to note that the very first time that Haman's ancestors, the Amalekites, came to attack the Jewish people after the crossing of the Red Sea, we find a somewhat similar situation. Towards the end of Parashas Beshalach (Shemos 16-17) the Torah relates how the Jewish people complained a number of times to Moses and Aaron. First, they complained that they did not have enough food. In response to their complaints G'd provided them with the Heavenly Mann. G'd instructed Moses to tell them that every Friday they would receive an extra portion of Mann, but on Shabbat they should not gather any Mann. Nevertheless, some people went out to see if they could find Mann on Shabbat. A little later, they came to a place called Refidim. There was no water there and immediately they started to quarrel with Moses demanding water. The Ramban explains that they actually still had plenty of water with them, which is why Moses rebuked them and said, (Shemos 17:2) "Why do quarrel with me and why do you test G'd?" Soon after that the Torah relates how Amalek came and fought a battle with the Jewish people in Refidim. Our sages discuss why the Torah repeats that the battle took place in Refidim (Shemos 17:8). This seems to be redundant as we were already told this was the place where the Jewish people camped. The Mechilta answers this by splitting up the word "Refidim" and reads it as "raf" "yadam" which means "they loosened their grip". The Mechilta explains that this indicates that the Jewish people were somewhat slack in their study and observance of the Torah laws they had already received when they were camped in Marah (see Shemos 15:25). And, says the Mechilta, this was what enabled Amalek to attack.

Separate from each other

In Parashas Yisro (Shemos 19:2) it says, "And they travelled away from Refidim and they came to the Sinai wilderness and they camped in the wilderness. And Israel camped opposite the mountain." Here again the question arises why does the Torah inform us that they travelled from Refidim. This is where they had been until now. Is it not obvious that this is where they travelled from? Another two questions arise in connection with this verse. Why does it say that "they camped in the wilderness". It seems to be redundant since we were just told that they came to the wilderness. Thirdly, why are the Jewish people referred to as "Israel" in the singular rather than with the usual expression of "the children of Israel" in the plural? The Or HaChaim answers these three questions and explains that they refer to three pre-conditions for the Jewish people prior to their being ready to accept the Torah on Mount Sinai. First of all, they had to overcome their slackness in their study and observance of the laws of the Torah that they had already received. The Torah says that they travelled away from Refidim to indicate that they changed their approach to the Torah. No longer were they slack in their study and observance of its laws. On the contrary, they were eager to do whatever G'd would instruct them. Secondly, says the Or HaChaim, the reason why it is mentioned that they camped in the wilderness is to teach us that they were humble and modest. As the Talmud (Nedarim 55a) teaches that in order to study Torah one should be as humble as the wilderness. Just as the wilderness is ready to accept anyone that comes its way, so must the Torah student be ready to learn from anyone who has what to teach. To answer the third question, why Israel is mentioned in the singular, the Or HaChaim quotes the Mechilta (also quoted in Rashi). This, says the Mechilta, comes to teach us that the Jewish people were united as one person with one heart. Till then, there had been quarrels and disputes every time they camped. But when they came to Mount Sinai, there was complete unity among them all. This was the final prerequisite needed to receive the Torah. It is interesting to note that if we rearrange the letters of the word "Refidim" it reads as "peridim", meaning "the ones who are separate from each other." This is a further indication that they travelled away from being separate and came to Sinai united.

No Torah, humility or unity

It was their slackness in Torah study and observance, their lack of humbleness and modesty, and their disunity, that set the scene for the attack by Amalek in Refidim. Similarly, at the time of the story of Purim, these were the very same issues that enabled Haman, the descendant of Amalek, to scheme against the Jewish people. Had they humbled themselves and united to listen to Mordechai, and had they followed his instructions how a Torah-observant Jew should conduct himself, there would have been no Heavenly accusation against them, and Haman would not have stood a chance.

Purim remedy

Later in the Book of Esther (4:16), we read how Esther instructed Mordechai and said to him, "Go and assemble all the Jews to be found in Shushan and fast for me. They shall not eat and they shall not drink for three days, night and day and then I will go to the king." The deeper significance of these instructions was that this would provide the remedy for the problems of the Jewish people. Esther told Mordechai that he would have to get the Jewish inhabitants of Shushan to listen to him. They would have to humble themselves and follow his instructions, even though that from a political point of view Mordechai's conduct did not make any sense. How could he deliberately enrage Haman by not bowing down to him, as everyone was obligated to by royal decree? They had to accept this spiritual giant as their true leader. By assembling together under Mordechai's leadership they would demonstrate their unity and their readiness to observe the Torah laws as he taught them. In addition, this unity had to be expressed through days of fasting to atone for their participation in the royal feast. By not eating and drinking they put right the wrongs that had come about through their eating and drinking. If Mordechai could achieve this, said Esther, she felt that she could approach the king, all the while beseeching the King on high with her prayers.

Renewed acceptance

It is no wonder that the Talmud (Shabbos 88a) refers to the Story of Purim as a renewed acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people. For as the Jews of Shushan led the way, the Jewish populations of all 127 countries united to strengthen themselves in their Torah study and observance, and humbly accepted Mordechai as their leader.

Atonement by feasting

As we celebrate Purim, we have a special obligation to partake in a festive meal using eating and drinking as a means to serve G'd. This is an even higher level of atonement for the Jewish participation in Ahashvarous' feast. As alluded to in the words of the Arizal that the fast of Yom Kippur (Yom Ki - Purim, a day similar to Purim) is second only to the Day of Purim. For on Yom Kippur we seek atonement by fasting, but on Purim we seek atonement by feasting. We humble ourselves as we read the Book of Esther realizing that the Hand of G'd was behind the sequence of events that eventually led to the salvation of the Jewish people. We assemble in our synagogues and provide each other with mishloach manot. We further look after the needs of the poor and destitute with matanot laevyonim, all this to display our unity and care for each other. And we beseech the King of kings that we also shall be spared from the attacks of the various Amalekites and soon see the complete salvation of the Jewish people.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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