Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 28 February 2015 / 9 Adar I 5775

Purim and the Reacceptance of the Torah

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
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“And Moshe brought the nation toward G-d from the camp and they stood beneath the mountain. (Shemot 19:17)

“They stood beneath the mountain”: Rav Avidni bar Chama said, “This comes to teach us that G-d held the mountain over them like a barrel, saying: ‘If you accept the Torah, then fine, but if not, there will be your burial place…” Rava said, “Nevertheless, they reaccepted it (voluntarily) during Achashverosh’s days,as it says, ‘The Jews fulfilled and accepted’; they fulfilled that which they previously accepted”. (Tractate Shabbat 88a)

The commentaries point out a few fundamental apparent problems with the above Gemara. Firstly, how are we to understand the forceful nature of the acceptance of the Torah in light of the verse (Shemot 24:7) that says the Jewish people voluntarily accepted the Torah by declaring “na’aseh v’nishma” (“we will do and we will hear”)? Furthermore why did it take until Purim, hundreds of years later, for them to reaccept it? Finally, in what way was the period of the story of Purim the opportune time for this undertaking?

In order to answer these questions we must delve into the essence of the holiday of Purim. The Gemara says:

Where is Esther’s name mentioned in the Torah? The verse states (Devarim 31:18): “haster astir panai bayom hahu”… (I shall hide my face on that day) — (Tractate Chullin 139b)

Rashi: During the time of Esther there will be a “hiding of the face” (of G-d), and this will be a time of great troubles.

The above Gemara elegantly describes the period of the events of Purim as a time when G-d hid His presence from being revealed to the world. This is because at the time, the Beit Hamikdash, the place from which G-d’s presence radiates to the entire world, was in ruins and the Jewish nation was in exile. Additionally, Achashverosh, the king of the country to which they were exiled, hated everything they stood for and was throwing a party in honor of the seventieth anniversary of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash (Tractate Megillah 11b). It was a significant anniversary celebrating (according to Achashverosh’s false calculations) the fact that Yirmiyahu’s prophecy in verse 29:10, which was that the Beit Hamikdash would be rebuilt in seventy years, wasn’t fulfilled. If that wasn’t enough there was also the decree of Haman, the second in command to the king, to kill all the Jewish men, women and children in one day. At first glance it seemed like G-d had totally lifted His providence from His chosen nation.

Even the final deliverance of the Jewish People in the story of Purim was unique in this regard. Unlike the redemption from Egypt in which G-d performed open miracles to reveal Himself to the world, the final salvation of the Jewish People in the story of Purim was seemingly through natural means. Achashverosh’s feast, Vashti’s execution, Esther’s election as queen, Haman’s rise to power, Mordechai’s act of saving the king’s life, and the victory over Amalek did not disobey the laws of nature. Rabbi Simcha Zissel points out that the fact the occurrences described in the megillah happened over a span of nine long years could have easily led the people experiencing the events to label each event as a separate, independent coincidence. In other words, through examining the events of the story of Purim superficially, one could very well have attributed it all to chance.

Through analyzing the megillah, however, a person is given a glimpse behind how every single event was a piece of a puzzle put in place, ultimately depicting the guiding hand of G-d. By presenting so many unrelated and unlikely events as part of one long story, the megillah forces us to ask, “Who is the One orchestrating so many things to happen at precisely the perfect time?”This idea is hinted at in the name that is given to this megillah, Megillat Esther. The word megillah shares the same root as the word “megaleh” which means to reveal. Furthermore, the name Esther shares the same root as the word “nistar” which means hidden. Hence, Megillat Esther literally means “revealing that which is hidden”. Revealing the hidden hand of G-d is exactly what the megillah is meant to do. This is precisely why the megillah never explicitly mentions the name of G-d. G-d’s name was purposely left out of the megillah to teach us to search for the guiding hand of G-d even when it is not revealed, and thereby come to realize that G-d is not only the driving force behind open miracles but also nature as well.

With this in mind we can gain an insight into the custom of wearing costumes on Purim. A mask covers the identity and to a certain degree the existence of the one wearing it. It is only when we lift the mask that we can see who is behind it. In Hebrew the word “olam” (world), shares a root with the word “ne’elam” (hidden). This is because the consistent laws of nature “hide” the presence of G-d, as a mask hides the identity of the one behind it. It is left up to us to see through the mask and reveal G-d’s presence in the world. Purim, by the nature of its hidden miracles, is the perfect time to remind ourselves that there is more to the world than what meets the eye — hence the custom to wear costumes on this day.

We can now understand the idea behind the reacceptance of the Torah on Purim. When the Jewish People left Egypt they were on a spiritual high. The miracles, and thus G-d’s presence in the world, was so clear that all doubts disappeared. It was this clarity that the Midrash metaphorically refers to as a mountain hanging over the Jewish People. At the time, the revelations were so intense and the significance of the Torah was so apparent that it was almost as if there was no option but to accept the Torah. Therefore, even though their acceptance of the Torah was essentially voluntary, it also had an element of compulsion. On Purim however, when G-d’s presence was hidden, the Jewish People reaccepted the Torah without the coercion of the “mountain” of clarity. This is the reason why it took until Purim to reaccept the Torah. In the midst of G-d’s concealment Purim was indeed the most opportune time for the Jewish People to reaccept the Torah through exercising the full extent of their free will.

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