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The Essence of Purim

The Gemara (Megillah 12a) relates that the students of Rabi Shim'on bar Yochai held that the reason there was a decree to annihilate all of the Jews, at the time of the evil Haman, was because they had enjoyed the feast of Achashverosh. Rabi Shim'on argued that this could not be since only the Jews of Shushan partook of the banquet and deserved to be punished so severely; yet the decree was upon all of the Jews around the world. Therefore, he gave another explanation.

In the third volume of Ohr Yahel, Reb Shalom Shvadron z"l brings a question from his rebby, Reb Leib Chasman zt"l. We see that Rabi Shim'on only disagreed with his students due to a technicality. But, in principle, he agreed that the sin of the King's party was grounds enough to bring a penalty of annihilation on all those who partook of it. How can this be so? Even if the food were non-kosher, the penalty for eating treif is not death; and certainly not total obliteration.

But it is even more difficult when one considers that the Scripture says about the party, "And the drinking was according to the law; no one compelled; for the king had instructed to all the officials of his house, that they should do according to every man's pleasure" (Ester 1:8). The Gemara (Ibid. 12a) interprets the passage "according to every man's pleasure" to mean the pleasures of Mordechai and Haman. In other words, the party was organized according to their directives, To be sure, argues Reb Leib, if Mordechai was in charge of the arrangements, the food must have been glatt kosher (strictly kosher - according to the highest standards).

The answer, says Reb Leib, is that it doesn't say that they were punished for eating from the food at the banquet but for enjoying it.

Imagine if some Neo-Nazis were to make a gala celebration to commemorate the Holocaust. They all get together, dressed up in Nazi uniforms, display swastikas on flags and banners and hang up a giant picture of Adolph Hitler ym"sh in the center of the hall which they all salute while singing Nazi anthems. To add to their enjoyment, they force a group of Holocaust survivors to attend and participate in their festivities. What would be the reaction of those unfortunate Jews? Surely they would cry and feel devastated as their old wounds were reopened. Some would even faint as they relive their horrifying experiences. Certainly not one Jew in his right mind would say that he enjoyed the festivities.

However, at Achashverosh's palace, that's exactly what happened. The purpose of the party was to commemorate the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash by Nevuchadnezzar, about seventy years before. Yirmiyahu had prophesied that after seventy years of exile the Jews would be redeemed and would return to the Land of Israel. According to Achashverosh's mistaken reckoning; that time had already passed. Consequently, he believed that the Jews were doomed to remain In Exile forever. Therefore, he desecrated the holy vessels of the Temple which he had in his possession by drinking wine from them at his banquet and he even dressed himself in the clothes of the Kohen Gadol. What should the Jews who attended have done? Cried! Wailed! Fainted! Yet the Gemara relates that they actually enjoyed the feast. They went home and said to each other, "That was some nice party, wasn't it? I really enjoyed it. We should have more of them!" If the Jews could be so cold-blooded and apathetic about the Holy of Holies, then they had totally assimilated and there was no spark of Yiddishkeit left within them. For this, they deserved to be annihilated, G-d forbid, had they not repented for their sins under Mordechai's direction.

Rabbi Varshavchik z"l told us about a Chassidic Rebbe who was going home from shul, surrounded by many of his Chassidim. It was mid-winter in Europe, and the lake was frozen over. The local Christians were chopping up the ice and building a giant cross for their holidays. To the amazement of the Chassidim, the Rebbe stood there all the while staring intently at what they were doing. Finally, a brave Chassid mustered up the courage to ask the Rebbe why he was so interested in the goings on. The Rebbe replied, "I'm standing here and reflecting. The lake contains kosher mikveh water which is able to purify even one who is very impure. But if it freezes, one can cut it up and build a cross! The same is with a Jew. If he is spiritually warm, then even if he transgresses from time to time, he can be awakened and led to repentance. But if he has become as cold as ice, and he is apathetic to spirituality, then he is totally lost to Judaism."

On Purim, we are supposed to "thaw out" from the icicles of indifference which have become a part of our being. It is a day to eat, drink and celebrate our Jewishness by singing songs of praises to Hashem for saving us from Haman and all of our enemies throughout our history. It's a day to explain to our children that, "All who hope in You will not be shamed nor humiliated forever, those taking refuge in You" (from the liturgy "Shoshanas Ya'akov," recited after the reading of the Megillah and sung with great gusto throughout Purim).

If we will be "varemer Yidden" ("warm" Jews), then we'll truly be happy in this world and in the World-to-Come.

Happy Purim.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel