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Purim Exposed

by Rabbi Dov Ber Weisman
Torah from Dixie staff writer

On the Shabbat before Purim we are commanded to read Parshat Zachor, a special section in the Torah to remember what the original Amalek did to us when we were leaving Egypt, and we are instructed, "You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek." Why, of all nations, is Amalek singled out for utter extermination? Furthermore, how does one perform this mitzvah today when we don't really know who Amalek is?

                                                                              

                                                                                                                      

When the great tzaddik (righteous person) and 19th century leader, the Chiddushei Harim, was but a little boy, he was already known throughout the world as a genius. One day, one of the laymen of the community came up to the future great leader and teasingly said to him, "If you can tell me where G-d is, I will give you a gold coin." The boy immediately responded, "If you can tell me where G-d is not, I'll give you two gold coins."

This story is, in essence, the story of the upcoming holiday of Purim; the story of our individual lives; and the story of the survival of the Jewish people. Purim describes how Hashem saved us yet again from another threat of annihilation at the hands of the nation of Amalek, this time via Haman. In fact, on the Shabbat before Purim we are commanded to read Parshat Zachor, a special section in the Torah to remember what the original Amalek did to us when we were leaving Egypt, and we are instructed, "You shall wipe out the memory of Amalek." Why, of all nations, is Amalek singled out for utter extermination? Furthermore, how does one perform this mitzvah today when we don't really know who Amalek is?

The answers to these questions can be found in the reading of Parshat Zachor itself, found in Deuteronomy 25:17-19. Describing Amalek's first attack on the Jewish people, the Torah says, "Asher karcha baderech - that Amalek met you on the way." Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Torah, points out that the word "karcha - met" is related in its root source to two other Hebrew words: "kar - cold" and "mikreh - coincidence". What is Rashi teaching us with this interpretation?

The fact is that we were victorious over Amalek in that initial attack. However, Amalek succeeded in injecting a poisoned heretic philosophy within us that we have been struggling to overcome ever since. The Torah uses the word karcha to describe Amalek's attack on the Jewish people because, more than just a physical confrontation, this was a spiritual battle as well. Amalek, who represents anti-G-d, anti-spirituality, anti-anything that they cannot physically see or feel, wants to convince the world that everything that happens in universal events and history is merely mikreh - coincidence. They espouse that there is no Divine supervision in the world, that things just happen by chance via simple cause and effect, just like a pur - lottery. The results of such a philosophy is kar - a cooling off of Jewish mystique in the world; a chilling of enthusiasm within us in our service of Hashem, in our learning His Torah, in our performing His mitzvot, and in our overall spiritual yearning to always grow closer to Hashem. In short, Amalek injected into us an unfeeling, cold heart of stone, and for this reason Amalek and his heresy must be thoroughly eliminated from the world. However, we are still left with the question of how? How, today, do we fulfill this mitzvah in modern liberal America?

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, the late rosh yeshiva (dean) of the Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, tells us that we can still fulfill this mitzvah in its root spiritual source, and in what is in fact its main and most significant form - to wipe out the Amalek within us, to eradicate the pagan philosophies of coincidence and cause and effect from our thought processes, the feelings of "my power and my strength has accomplished all this for me," of the denial of G-d's hand in the events of history. By exterminating these falsehoods from within us, we can then battle the other injected poison of Amalek, the haphazard callousness towards our spirituality.

One of the strengths of the Jewish people is "hitchadshut - renewal," to always feel a newness and enthusiasm in mitzvot, prayer, and serving Hashem. Concerning the mitzvah "V'chai bahem - you shall live by [the mitzvot]," the Chiddushei Harim remarks that we should strive to instill life and vitality into our mitzvah observance.

Renewal via Rosh Chodesh, the new month, is the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a nation. The moon's continuing cycle represents our ability to renew ourselves in our service of Hashem so that it should not grow old, stagnant, or done by rote. It is this ability of renewal that is the key to Jewish survival throughout a long persecuted history of exile. The Talmud tells us that "Hashem created the cure before the affliction" - it is no coincidence that the mitzvah of renewal appears in the Torah portion of Bo, directly before our first encounter with Amalek in the Torah portion of Beshalach.

But we must be more practical. How in actuality can we arrive at this renewal and enthusiasm in our service of Hashem and in seeing the hand of Hashem in all events? Again the first encounter with Amalek provides us with the answers. The verse says, "The Children of Israel tested Hashem, saying, 'Is Hashem among us or not?' And Amalek came and attacked Israel in Refidim" (Exodus 17:7-8). From here our sages teach us that Amalek attacked us for two reasons: We were lax in our study of Torah ("Refidim," the location of the battle, means lax), and we doubted if Hashem was in our midst guiding us.

Really these two answers are one in the same. The way to see Hashem's guiding hand orchestrating the events in our lives, to see Him in our midst, can only come through the study of Torah. It is through delving into our Guidebook of Life that we then realize that there is no such thing as coincidence in the world and that everything is from Hashem. Upon reading Megillat Esther, one sees what is apparently a series of coincidences, a chain of seemingly random events that when alone would be meaningless, but when put together show a beautifully designed tapestry assembled by the Master of all designs for the salvation of Israel. Of all the 24 books in the Holy Scriptures, Megillat Esther is the only one in which G-d's name is not mentioned even once. This, too, is no coincidence - the whole story of Purim looks like it is flowing along by strategic and political espionage. But only in the end does one see clearly that the book that does not mention Hashem's name is filled with His direct orchestration of all events, and in the end, nowhere is G-d's name more apparent than in the Megillah. Even its name "Megillat Esther" means to reveal what is hidden, describing precisely its own lesson.

The lesson of Purim is the lesson of life, that Hashem does not want us to live with what appears to be direct cause and effect; we are to live by the Ultimate Cause. The lesson of Purim is that "there is none but Him" (from the Aleinu prayer) - Hashem is the only reality. This is a reason behind the custom to wear masks on Purim - what we think is coincidence is nothing but a mask of a deeper hidden reason and cause; that the world of apparent cause and effect is an illusion, a mask of Hashem's gloved hand guiding the destiny in the world. "Olam - world" shares the same root as he'elam - hidden, as Hashem is hidden in the world, waiting to be found.

The Talmud asks, "Where is the name Esther hinted to in the Torah?" The answer is in the verse where Hashem says, "Anochi haster astir panai bayom hahu - I will surely hide My face on that day." That day is today and all our days, as the constant test and challenge in our lives is to see G-d's presence everywhere in the world, despite cause and effect, and to recognize His supervision, even though we don't see "His name" clearly in our lives.

At the end of Megillat Esther, the verse states, "The Jews had light, happiness, joy, and honor." Our sages explain that "light" refers to Torah, "happiness" is Yom Tov (the Jewish holidays), "joy" is the mitzvah of brit milah, and "honor" refers to the mitzvah of tefillin. The S'fas Emes, the grandson of the Chiddushei Harim and a great Torah scholar and leader in his own right, asks if the Megillah wants us to know that after the Purim victory the Jews had Torah, Yom Tov, brit milah, and tefillin, why doesn't it just say so straight out? The S'fas Emes explains that this is precisely the point - renewal! During Purim we succeeded in not only killing the external, physical Amalek of Haman, but also we wiped out the internal spiritual Amalek within us. We rid ourselves of our heart of stone and replaced it with a heart of feeling flesh, and now we truly realize that these mitzvot are in fact light, happiness, joy, and honor. We always had the mitzvot and we performed them, but because of the Amalek within us they became routine and a burden. But during Purim we had a renewal and realized that the true nature of light is Torah and we only felt true happiness, joy, and honor when we did the mitzvot of Yom Tov, brit milah, and tefillin. We felt the excitement in being Jews - the pleasure of spirituality, the sweetness in being servants of Hashem.

Again, it is no coincidence that we repeat this verse every Saturday night during Havdalah. On every Shabbat, Hashem comes to dwell a little closer to us, and with this experience we can behold a heightened perspective of our spiritual nature. When Shabbat comes to an end, we carry over this perspective of renewal of what true light, joy, happiness, and honor are into the distorted values of the week that can dull one's heart and soul.

The lesson of Purim is the lesson of life. It is the lesson that the Chiddushei Harim as a boy taught the layman; to see Hashem as a real entity all around us, especially in our private lives, and to make within ourselves a place where Hashem can dwell. Where does Hashem dwell? Answers the Kotzker Rebbe, "Wherever Man lets him in."

Rabbi Dov Ber Weisman writes from Atlanta.

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