Unmasking the Megilla
Rabbi Yosef Levinson
When we think of Purim, one of the first things that comes to mind is the minhag, custom, of masquerading. We disguise ourselves and hide our faces behind a mask. This reminds us that our salvation on Purim came about through a neis nistar, a hidden miracle. Hashem did not alter the natural order of things. He did not split the sea or cause a single jug of oil to burn for eight days. After witnessing a chain of seemingly chance occurrences, the Jewish people realized that Hashem was with them all along, coordinating events for their benefit. When we see someone wearing a mask, our curiosity is piqued. Just who is it behind that mask? We concentrate and try to guess their identity. This is one of the lessons of Purim as the Gemara 1 asks: "Where is there an allusion to Esther in the Torah?" The Gemara answers: "Ve'anochi hasteir astir panai" - And I shall surely hide My face 2. If we search beneath the surface, we will find the Yad Hashem, the Hand of Hashem throughout the Purim story. We must then bring this lesson home and see Hashem's hashgacha, guidance, in our own lives. However, as we shall see, the Megilla teaches us that there is even more in this world for us to unmask.
We are all familiar with the story of the Megilla. Haman plans to kill all the Jews and he offers King Achashverosh a huge ransom for the king's consent. Achashverosh told Haman to keep his money and that he may do as he pleases with the Jews. A decree pronouncing this dreadful event was written and sealed, then quickly dispatched and proclaimed throughout the land. When the Jews heard of Haman's wicked plans, they were shocked. They cried and moaned and began to mourn.
Queen Esther asked everyone to fast and pray for three days. Then she invited Achashverosh and Haman to two consecutive banquets. At the second feast, Esther revealed that she was a Jewess and that Haman had planned to kill her and her people. The king was furious. To add insult to injury, Charvona immediately informed Achashverosh that Haman had erected a gallows fifty cubits high to hang Mordechai, who had saved the king from assassination. This was the final straw. The king ordered Haman executed on those very gallows.
Although their archenemy was now dead, the Jews were still not out of danger. Haman's decree was still in effect, and his malicious plans could go ahead without obstruction. Esther approached Achashverosh again. Together with Mordechai, she beseeched the king to rescind the dreadful order against the Jews. Achashverosh answered that a royal edict cannot be revoked once issued, as was the law. However he allowed a new decree to be issued, which Esther and Haman could word as they saw fit. What did Mordechai write? The Jews were permitted to defend themselves and to slay their adversaries, and to destroy all those who threaten them. This is very puzzling. Even after this new edict was issued, it would appear that the Jewish people's enemies were still permitted to exterminate them. Haman's original edict, horrific as it was, did not prohibit the Jews from defending themselves. Even so they realized the futility of such action. The entire world, one hundred and twenty-seven nations, was against them. Could the Jews possibly repel such a force? Mordechai's decree did not appear to augment the Jewish nation's chance of survival.
Yet, after the royal couriers delivered the new message, the Megilla relates that the Jews rejoiced: "And the Jews had light, happiness joy and honour." 3 Why were they so ecstatic? How could they be so confident that they would prevail over their many enemies after they were so sure they were doomed to defeat?
The Gemara states 4, "R' Abba bar Kahana said, 'the removal of (Achashverosh's) signet ring which he gave to Haman (signifying his consent to Haman's evil decree) was greater than the forty-eight nevi'im, prophets, and seven nevios, prophetesses, who prophesied to Israel. For they were all unable to stir the Jews to repent, whereas the removal of the signet ring did stir the Jews to repent.'"
R'Abba bar Kahana's message is obvious. Even though the people knew that the nevi'im who came to rebuke them were repeating what they had heard directly from Hashem, nevertheless they were not inspired to repent 5. However in the times of Haman, the Jews saw the dreadful decree in writing and his malicious intentions were read publicly for all to hear. What can stir a nation to repentance more than seeing their own death sentence signed and sealed?
Yet, the Gemara makes no mention of the decree itself. The Gemara only discusses the hasaras hataba'as, the handing over of the signet ring. What significance does the hasaras hataba'as have and why would that awaken the people to repent?
Every king has a cabinet of ministers to assist him in ruling the country. The ministers do research and advise the king. The king issues his decisions. It is then the cabinet's task to carry out their ruler's wishes. At all times, the king is in command. Inasmuch as the ruler cannot possibly keep track of all affairs of state, both foreign and domestic, he requires his aides' advice and assistance. If the king would commission one of his ministers to carry out a royal edict, there would be no reason to transfer his signet ring to the minister. The ring is a symbol of authority. The minister is only an emissary, performing his duties. The king remains in charge.
Achashverosh's act of giving his ring to Haman was a declaration that he was no longer ruler over the Jews. Achashverosh was ridding himself of the Jewish problem. He was transferring all authority to Haman. Haman was now in command. He could do as he saw fit 6.
Although Hashem's name is not mentioned in the Megilla, the Midrash 7 explains that when the passuk says "HaMelech", the King, without mentioning Achashverosh by name, it is an allusion to Hashem - Malcho shel Olam, the King of the Universe. In these places, Achashverosh, the King of this world was mirroring the actions of Hashem the Melech Malchei HaMelachim, the King of Kings, in the Heavens 8. Let us now revisit the passuk: "And the King removed His signet ring and gave it to Haman." It was the Malcho shel Olam who removed the ring and this was what frightened the nation to sincere repentance more so than all the prophecies of the nevi'im.
The Bnei Yisrael enjoy Hashgacha Pratis, Divine Intervention. Hashem plays a direct role in the lives of the Jewish People, both on a national and individual level. When, over the course of time, the Jewish Nation sinned, the nevi'im stood up and rebuked them to mend their ways. If the people remained complacent, the nevi'im warned of dire consequences. Foreign armies would attack and plunder their possessions, famine, disease and plague would strike the people. However, this did not arouse them from their slumber. For who was punishing them? Hashem! Hashem is our Father and a father punishes with mercy. More importantly, if Hashem would cause them to suffer, that meant He still cared for them. They were still His children under the guidance of His ever-watchful eye.
In the times of Purim however, Hashem turned away from the people. He removed His ring and gave it to the wicked Haman. It was, kaviyachol, as if, they were no longer being guided by their loving Father in Heaven 9. Natural events and circumstances would decide the fate of the Jewish people. This is why the ring was transferred to Haman, a descendant of Amalek. Amalek personifies teva (nature) and mikreh (chance); they aim to deny Hashem's existence in this world 10.
This is what stirred the Jews to teshuva. It was as if they were being cast out of their Father's house. They felt that He was no longer concerned for them and that scared them. At this frightening time, the people prayed and repented. They realized that they were dependent solely on Hashem. Their efforts bore fruit and Haman was executed. They saw that after they returned and put their trust in Hashem, He began to carefully look after them again. Although Achashverosh turned down Mordechai and Esther's request and did not rescind Haman's ominous decree, he did permit them to issue a new edict. Yes - on paper nothing changed. The enemies of the Jews could still kill and destroy the Jewish Nation and the Jewish people could fight back and kill their adversaries as before. However, now that Hashem was back in the Bnei Yisrael's camp, they understood the wording of the second decree as another Heavenly sign that Hashem would fight their cause - they could slay and exterminate all those that rise up against them. Furthermore, this edict was published after the king took the ring that he had given to Haman and handed it to Mordechai 11. Mordechai was now in charge of the Jews. This passuk also makes no mention of Achashverosh when referring to the king. Once again, the King was Hashem. He removed the ring from the hand of Haman, who personified mikreh, and gave it to Mordechai Hatzaddik, who exemplified trust in Hashem in all circumstances. If the people would follow Mordechai they would prevail, as it says, "tzaddik b'emunaso yichyeh" - the righteous person shall live through his faith 12. It did not matter that 127 nations were preparing to attack them. "Eileh varechev va'eileh vasusim, va'anachnu b'sheim Hashem Elokeinu nazkir. Heima karu v'nafalu va'anachnu kamnu v'nisodad." Some come with chariots and some with horses, but we call out in the name of Hashem. They slumped and fell, but we arose and were invigorated 13. Surely this was cause for celebration. And rejoice they did: "The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honour."
This was not only a time of physical joy; it was also a time of spiritual revival. The Gemara 14 interprets this verse "The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honour", as follows. Light refers to Torah… gladness is Yom Tov… joy refers to mila, circumcision…and honour is tefillin. The climax of this renewed interest in Torah occurred after the Jews conquered their enemies. After their stunning victory, they accepted the Torah anew like they did at Sinai. "'Kiymu v'kiblu'- the Jews established and accepted 15. They established (in the times of Purim) what they accepted already (at Har Sinai)". Rashi explains that it was due to the love for the miracle that Hashem performed for them then that they re-accepted the Torah 16.
How did Mordechai and Esther's decree cause a Torah renaissance and what was so special about the Jews' victory that they re-accepted the Torah because of this miracle? There were countless miracles and salvations that were performed from the time of Kabbalas HaTorah (receiving the Torah) until the Purim story. What aroused their love on Purim that they felt this great devotion and commitment to the Torah? Interestingly, Rashi does not say that they accepted the Torah because of love of Hashem, because He performed a miracle, rather it was due to love of the miracle itself. What does Rashi mean?
In comparison to the other miracles performed on behalf of Bnei Yisroel, the miracle of Purim is unique. Factually, the decree that was issued proclaiming the Jews' right to defend themselves was no different from the original edict. Yet they understood that this new proclamation signalled their redemption. It drew into focus the significance of all the events that had transpired in order to reach this point. Specifically, Vashti was deposed because she aroused Achashverosh's anger. Subsequently, Esther was found to be the most beautiful maiden in Achashverosh's kingdom and he selected her as his new queen. Mordechai happened to overhear Bigsan and Seresh plotting to assassinate the king and foiled their plans. His deed was recorded in the royal ledger then totally forgotten. Haman built a gallows to hang his archenemy, Mordechai.
In retrospect, we see how these events were Divinely orchestrated. Vashti was removed to make way for Esther. Esther would now be able to beseech Achashverosh and save her people when the need would arise five years hence. Furthermore, the belated revelation of Mordechai's role in foiling the assassination plot, resurfaced at a most opportune time and played a significant part in Haman's downfall and the Jewish people's salvation.
The fact that Haman built a gallows to hang Mordechai, who saved the king's life showed Achashverosh that Haman was not concerned in the least with what was in the king's best interest. Haman had his own agenda, which he would strive to carry out even if it proved detrimental to the government. Also, the gallows was all prepared for a swift execution, before the fickle ruler could change his mind.
Now that they understood the true meaning of these events, the Bnei Yisraelrelated to these past occurrences as if they were happening in the present. This is why they had a special affinity for the miracle of Purim. Throughout their history, the Bnei Yisrael witnessed many a miracle. Hashem had delivered them from certain death on numerous occasions. No doubt, in their excitement and joy over these miracles, they approached the Torah and mitzvos with new found enthusiasm. Also in all likelihood, they resolved to be more diligent with their learning, in appreciation for all that Hashem had done for them. However, they still did not re-accept the Torah. The Bnei Yisrael learnt the Torah and were well versed in its laws as well as observing the mitzvos. How could they utter a new kabbala (acceptance) if they did not receive any mitzvos or laws that they never learnt before? They could study the Torah enthusiastically and cherish the mitzvos but whenever they would learn they would only be reviewing lessons from the past.
The Purim miracle taught the Bnei Yisrael to re-evaluate well-established ideas and beliefs. If they could uncover new purpose to the events that transpired in their daily lives and if they could relive these incidents, then they could surely discover new understandings and approaches to the Torah that they had already learnt. If the Bnei Yisrael, would look beneath the surface they would find many new meanings that remained hidden until then. They could then see Torah in a new light.
This is the meaning of the Gemara. The passuk does not say that the Jews had Torah, Yom Tov, mila, and tefillin, rather the passuk relates that they had light, gladness and honour. The Bnei Yisrael already kept the Torah and mitzvos - what they were lacking was the light and joy that emanates from the Torah and mitzvos. After Haman was executed and a new decree was issued, the Bnei Yisrael began to perceive the light of the Torah through the new interpretations that they uncovered. Through discovering new purpose to fulfilling the Torah's precepts, they started to experience the joy of the mitzvos 17.
These feelings continued to grow until the Bnei Yisrael's enemies were defeated. Then, they actually experienced Hashem's hidden miracles. They witnessed the slaying and extermination of all those who had planned to destroy them. Hashem redeemed them without altering the natural order of the world; there were no innovations. Kiymu v'kiblu: once again Bnei Yisrae lshouted "naaseh v'nishma", we will do and we will listen.
This is a very important lesson for us as well. Familiarity breeds complacency. We assume that since we have learnt the Megilla so many times, that we fully understand the Purim story and there is no need for us to re-examine it. But, as we have demonstrated, merely scratching at the surface of the Megilla, uncovers new treasures. The same is true for much of what we were taught in our youth. Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm, writes 18 that as we grow older and mature intellectually, we learn new subjects and mitzvos with our advanced abilities. Yet, we still approach the mitzvos and learning of our youth as we did then. As the Gemara says "Kasha atika meichadeta"- it is harder to learn something old than something new 19.
The Alter says this is why Chazal taught "B'kol yom yihiyeh b'einecha k'ilu hayom nitna"-We should constantly view the Torah as if it is being given today 20. No matter how many times we have learnt something or performed a particular mitzva, we should try to approach it as if it is the first time we are learning or observing it. Often when we really apply ourselves, we raise difficulties and wonder why we never asked these questions before. When we view the Torah and mitzvos as something new we too will come away with a wealth of insights and in that sense, it is a new Gemara or a new mitzva 21.
When we see our children masquerading on Purim let us remember that we must search and find how the Yad Hashem constantly affects our lives. And if we examine it closely we will also see how we benefit today from our past experiences. May we also always view the D'var Hashem, the Torah, as something new. Let us explore and strive to unmask the Megilla, deepen our mastery of Torah and make our fulfilment of mitzvos more meaningful.
1 Chullin 139b.
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