Crucible and Cure

How Purim paved the way for the children to return

Rabbi Dovid Samuels

It once happened, about 500 years ago, that Rav Yosef Karo[1] was learning a particularly difficult part of Torah. He struggled to make sense of a certain commentary and toiled the entire night to try and figure it out. At daybreak, he finally reached a deep and clear understanding, and his hard work had paid off. As he made his way to his shul that morning, he walked past a man sitting and learning that very same commentary. Now, this man was no outstanding Torah scholar; he was just simply and earnestly learning the Torah. But as Rav Yosef Karo turned his ear to hear how he learned that commentary, he was stunned to discover that the man had understood the commentary in exactly the same way that he himself had. What had taken the great Rav Yosef Karo the entire night of toil and effort had come to this simple man with such ease! This, naturally, upset the rabbi. Who was he to give halachic rulings to the entire Jewish world if a regular man could reach his conclusions with even greater ease than he himself?

This question bothered him, until the angel that frequently visited him and communicated with him consoled him: “Don’t be anguished by this. Your toil in understanding that piece of Torah brought down a certain illumination and enlightenment that now allows everyone to see and understand with much less effort.” In other words, Rav Yosef Karo had forged a path, through great exertion, that allows those who come after him to benefit and experience clarity with ease.

While the angel’s words certainly served to console Rav Karo, it also sheds a new light onto many events in our history, and specifically the festival of Purim.

One of the great miracles in the Torah was the splitting of the sea. An entire song written in the Torah and read every day in Shachris to commemorate and relive this amazing experience. But this event was repeated when Yehoshua led the Jews through the Jordan River into the Land of Israel. Not only that, the gemora[2] relates that a river split for the great Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair. Surely miraculous events, but not so much as a mention in our daily prayers.

Likewise, when Sarah fell pregnant, both she and Avraham could hardly believe such a thing. Surely a great miracle, and yet, afterwards, we see the same thing happening over and over again, with Rivka, and Rochel, and Channah much later, without nearly as much fan fair and disbelief. How do we explain the focus given to one event, and the same event later on getting much less publicity?

The answer lies in the angel’s response to Rav Yosef Karo’s anguish. Once the path has been created, it is much easier to travel down that same road a second time, and a third, and a forth. This means that when we celebrate the splitting of the sea, we are not just celebrating an event that happened long ago which allowed our survival. We are, in fact, acknowledging that seas splitting for the Jewish people is a likely event (under the right conditions), to the point where it can almost be expected, as happened nationally under the leadership of Yehoshua and personally to Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair. When Sarah fell pregnant, it didn’t just ensure the continuation of her and Avraham’s holy line. It meant that, from now on, Jewish women can mimic Sarah’s prayers, and that it is not unlikely that they too will fall pregnant, as happened to Rivka, Rochel, Channah, and countless other Jewish women through the ages. What started as a huge miracle became woven into the fabric of Jewish life and anyone who meets the criteria can benefit from this super-highway that has now been paved. And, as was taught by the angel, now a simple Jew can have insights into complicated Torah matters because the great Rav Yosef Karo sacrificed his comforts to uncover those hidden understandings.

Every time we celebrate a festival, it is really an opportunity to experience the same awesome revelations and miracles, without having to go through nearly as much work. The Jews in Egypt merited to see out-of-this-world plagues befall their enemies, but not without 210 years of slavery in a foreign land. They were given Divine protection in the harsh desert, but not without a super-human display of faith and trust in Hashem beforehand. And yet, today, just because we are Jews, we can experience the awesomeness of those events simply by keeping the laws of Pesach, and Sukkos. We observe and revere Rosh Hashanah, and in return we experience the benefits of Avraham and Yitzchak’s unbelievable self-sacrifice. The man learning might not have worked as hard as Rav Karo, but that doesn’t make his insight any less impressive. We might not have experienced 210 years of slavery ourselves, but that doesn’t make Pesach’s effect on us any less phenomenal.

As we approach Purim, we need to realise that something – a novel experience for the Jewish people – took place back then, and that we can tap into and appreciate that same experience with greater ease nowadays. So, what happened at Purim that was so remarkable, and that we can experience to this day?

The Chasam Sofer[3] writes that the fact that Hashem saved us when we cried out to Him was not such a great miracle. Afterall, the whole reason why suffering befell us was because we had strayed from Him. Repenting would naturally remedy the situation. What, then, the Chasam Sofer asks, was the greatest miracle of Purim?

The answer? When King Achashveirosh killed his wife, Vashti. That was the most unreal piece in the whole Purim story. Why? Because for 186 days of drinking and feasting, the king’s sole intention was to make each participant happy, providing them all with any of their favourite delicacies, and even avoiding any possible jealousy, yet on the final day something completely unnatural takes place. The king requests the queen’s presence and that she appear before the crowd of party-goers. This alone was not something that the queen was opposed to, for she too had lewd intentions during the days of feasting. Yet she refused, and not only that, but she also refused in a most insulting way. She referred to her husband as a man who couldn’t hold his liquor, weak compared to other, greater men from her own family[4]. This, too, was not enough to ensure her execution, for the king was unpredictable and erratic. He would forgive her tomorrow, and all would be good again in the castle. But his advisors hurriedly spoke up and pushed for the death penalty, effective immediately.

But that’s only half of the miracle. Let’s turn our attention to the Jewish people. We are taught[5] that the Jews had an outstanding debt against them from the times of King Nevuchadnetzar. The king had commissioned a gold statue to be built, and then ordered the Jews to bow down to it. Now, although the Jews only bowed down out of fear, not out of devotion, this was still something that required repentance. So, when years later another foreign king, Achashveirosh, arranges a feast in celebration of the fact that the Jews were no longer to be redeemed, and they go and show solidarity, we found ourselves in a position of such rebellion that we were even deserving of having a figure like Haman plan a final solution against us.

Totally remarkable! At the moment when we, the Jewish people, were showing the greatest act of rebellion against Hashem at the evil king’s party, our Father in Heaven was already setting up the events that would lead to our ultimate salvation: the execution of Vashti, the Chasam Sofer’s most notable part of the entire Purim story, which led to Esther being perfectly poised to beseech the king on behalf of the Jewish people when we needed it the most. All this, at the exact moment when we deserved it the least. Of course, we repented, with days of fasting and prayer before the wicked decree against us was annulled. But once the salvation came, we were able to look back and see how the seeds of salvation had been planted right from the beginning. At that moment we learned and forged a path for all future generations to realise that Hashem only strikes the Jewish people after He has already created the remedy.

But why does Hashem do it this way? Couldn’t He just as easily strike and only afterwards create the medicine to heal? The answer lies in why Hashem is striking. If a surgeon has his needle and thread next to the operating table, obviously his intent when making the first incision is not to cause pain, but rather to repair and heal. Likewise, Hashem acts towards us to heal us, even when it might be painful, like a loving father, with the remedy pre-arranged. All we need to do is rectify the cause of our pain, to return and reach out to Him, and He will apply the cure. The miracle of Vashti’s execution taught us, retroactively, that Hashem not only always acts towards us to make us better and spiritually healthier, but that He does it even when we may be behaving like a rebellious child. We are His children, and He is our Father; we might feel pain, but He is healing us.

So, just as Sarah opened up the channel in heaven for all Jewish women to pray for children, and just as the miracle of the Exodus paved a way for Jews to break out of their own shackles of slavery, Purim lit up a new reality that we, today, can make sense out of the chaos; that no matter where we may find ourselves, if we reach out to Hashem we can see how everything was in place from the beginning to facilitate this new awakening.

At the time of the Purim story, they had to sin, stare death in the face, to gather, to fast, to pray, and they had to repent to merit to see how they are and were always children of Hashem. We, on the other hand, can benefit from their efforts. We don’t need to face the threat of a modern-day Haman. We don’t need to face evil decrees to force us back in the right direction. If we utilise the festival and the message of Purim, we too can merit to see how Hashem is coordinating the entire story of our lives, and the story of the Jewish people. The highway has already been paved, and if we return to a life more dedicated to fulfilling the will of Hashem, His hidden hand will become noticeable in every piece of our lives, and we will see that He was always there directing us towards our remedy, just like it was in those days, at this time.

  1. 1488-1575. Author of the monumental halachic works, Beis Yosef and Shulchan Aruch.
  2. Chullin 7a
  3. Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Schreiber), 1762-1839, one of the leading rabbis of his time, and author of works on Torah, Talmud, and Halacha. He was also the son-in-law of the great Rabbi Akiva Eiger.
  4. Megillah 21b
  5. Megillah 12a

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