Purim

For the week ending 24 February 2018 / 9 Adar II 5778

Don't Be Childish! Do Be Childlike!

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
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As a child I adored Purim. I waited for it all year. Dressing up in a wacky costume and the never-ending nosh was the most amazing combination. Watching the adults behave in a way that they never, ever did during the rest of the year was pretty exciting too. Unfortunately, as I got older I seemed to lose some of that sense of childlike wonder and enthusiasm. It is not that I am not excited about things, but the excitement seems to be more restrained than it used to be when I was younger.

One of the most exciting parts of Purim is the reading of the Megillah. The Megillah tells the narrative of what happened before, during and just after the story of Purim — how we, the Jewish People, found ourselves in such critical danger, and how G-d protected us throughout. In fact, the Megillah is such a roller-coaster of a story that it is hard to keep track of all the details, of all the twists and turns, until the final outcome. Towards the end of the Megillah there is a delightful verse that describes how the Jewish People felt when they finally realized that they were no longer in danger of annihilation and did not have to live in terror of their lives: “LaYehudim haytah orah v’simcha v’sasson viy’kar — the Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor.” (8:16) This seems to be a simple and poignant portrayal of their feelings at that moment, and yet our Sages teach (Tractate Megillah 16b) that each one of those four expressions of emotion is actually alluding to one of four different commandments that we are obligated in. Orah — light — alludes to the learning of Torah, Simcha — gladness — alludes to keeping the Festivals, Sasson — joy — alludes to the obligation to perform Brit Mila, and Yekar — honor — alludes to wearing Tefillin.

One of the great Chassidic Rabbis, the Sefat Emet, questions why the Megillah is being so ambiguous. If the verse is referring to these commandments, why doesn’t it simply state that the Jewish nation had Torah, the Festivals, Brit Milah and Tefillin? Why does the verse use expressions of emotion to describe the commandments? The Sefat Emet provides a most insightful explanation. It wasn’t the commandments that were being restored. Rather, it was the emotion and feeling towards those commandments that was reignited within each individual. The Sefat Emet teaches that throughout the story of Purim the Jewish People never stopped learning Torah, but the light of Torah was missing from their lives. They also never stopped celebrating the Festivals, but, understandably, gladness was absent from their celebrations. So, too, there was never a moment when they stopped performing Brit Milah on their newborn babies, but how could they do so with joy under such a threat? And they always continued to put on Tefillin, but the incredible sense of honor that wearing Tefillin carries with it was missing when they did so.

However, once the enormous peril was removed from them, once they understood as clearly as can be that G-d had wrought for them the most astonishing miracle, they were able once more to serve G-d with true, unbridled emotion.

One of the most brilliant scholars in America before the Second World War was Rabbi Shlomo Heiman. He was one of the greatest authorities in Jewish Law in his generation and he was also the head of one of the flagship Torah academies in New York. Rabbi Heiman would give an in-depth Talmud lecture almost every day to his students, and, despite ill health, his enthusiasm and passion for Torah were legendary. One day there was a very heavy snowstorm and the city ground to a halt. Traffic was blocked and people stayed home to wait out the storm in comfort. On that day only three people arrived for the lecture even though they were virtually certain it would be cancelled. Yet, to their enormous surprise, Rabbi Heiman arrived to deliver the lecture as usual. In his characteristic way he began teaching them with fiery enthusiasm, just as if he was teaching hundreds of people in that room and not just three. Those three students saw that he was physically pushing himself to his limits, and, knowing that he was not in the best of health, they beseeched him, “Rabbi, there are only three of us here. Please don't exert yourself so much!”

“It’s not true that you are only three,” he replied. “Yes, of course I am speaking to the three of you, and trying my best to show you the beauty and wisdom of the Torah. But I am also hoping to influence not just you, but also your families, your children and grandchildren, your future students, and your students' students. I see them all before me!”

Not one of those three students would ever forget their Rebbe, his passion and his innocent enthusiasm. And neither would their families and students forget all this either.

Regarding the Ten Plagues that preceded the Exodus from Egypt, our Sages teach that each plague actually took a month from beginning to end. There were three weeks of warnings before the plague began, and then one week of the actual plague. The last plague was on Seder Night, the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Nissan. One of the great Chassidic leaders points out that this means that the Plague of Darkness, which was the ninth plague, started on the fifteenth of the previous month of Adar — The exact same date on which the events of Purim would take place almost one thousand years later! On exactly the same date when we are celebrating Purim and the return of the true light of Torah, and joy to the world, the Egyptians were plunged into complete and absolute darkness.

This time of the year is truly a time of light, gladness, joy and honor for the Jewish nation.

There is an old adage that resonates within me: “We never really grow up; we only learn how to act in public.” I think that there is a lot of truth to that. And I also think that perhaps Purim is the perfect time to really learn how to act in public. It is the time to learn how to let everyone see how excited we are about keeping the commandments. It is the time to show the world how passionate we are about being able to keep the commandments. It is the time to approach our relationship with G-d with childlike enthusiasm and innocence, so powerful that it does not wane throughout the rest of the year.

And if we do so, we will truly merit living and feeling exactly what the Megillah describes: “LaYehudim haytah orah v’simcha v’sasson viy’kar” — that we will also be blessed with lives that are full-to-bursting with light, gladness, joy and honor!

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