Losing our way…and finding it again
By: Aron Ziegler
After the First Temple was destroyed, we found ourselves exiled by the Babylonians. Once settled in their land and posing no threat to their kingdom, we were able to enjoy a period of ease and calm from persecution, and able to live, once again, as Jews. We were citizens in their land and could build relatively comfortable lives there. The Babylonians, however, were a barbaric, primitive people who thought nothing of cruelly butchering our people and had no sensitivity towards our way of life. As such, the Babylonian culture did not present an attractive alternative for us in terms of assimilation. Before long, however, the Babylonian regime was overthrown and the Persian King, Achashverosh, came to rule. Unlike the Babylonians, this king was warmer to the Jewish people and now we found ourselves in an entirely different exile with an entirely new set of challenges, as Jews became appointed to high positions in government and were sought out as advisers.
As we began to mingle and involve ourselves with the higher echelons of Persian culture, our Torah way of life began slipping away from us. We felt the need to be advancing the interests of our community in the King’s court and in the high-powered halls of the Persian authorities. This was not the first time in our history that such a thing happened, nor would it be the last, as nearly the very same rhetoric was used by young idealistic Jewish protesters in Russia, marching arm-in-arm with others in the fight for a better life. This decline in observance may have ultimately led to the total dissolution of Torah living – were it not for that fateful giving of the ring by Achashverosh to Haman to seal the royal decree which held our fate. Our Sages teach, “Greater was the removal of the ring (off the hand of Achashverosh and onto Haman’s) than the 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses who prophesied for the Jewish people, as they did not cause (us) to return to goodness, whereas the removal of the ring did bring (us) back to goodness”.
Haman looked at the Jewish people as lowly and inferior, wanting to directly attack us, prepared even to issue a blatant decree explicitly calling for our extermination. The Talmud likens the relationships that Achashverosh and Haman had towards the Jewish people to two men, one who has a pile of earth on his property and the other who has a ditch in his field that needs filling. Each wished that he had the other man’s problem so that he could use the other’s seeming advantage to deal with his own difficulty. One day, the two men bump into each other and the owner with the ditch says, “Sell me your pile (of earth so that I can use it to fill up my ditch)”, and the owner of the ditch replies, “Take it for free!”
Achashverosh looked at the Jewish people as a towering mountain that he could break down by befriending and assimilating them into his culture. He prized and envied our wisdom, prominence, and advancement and he hoped to wear us down with his overtures of affection. He brought us into his court, consulted with us, and made a feast for everyone in Shushan which even catered to our special kosher diet. Achashverosh, prompted by the advice of Memuchan (who was really Haman), authorised a royal decree which compelled each man to lead his house in his cultural custom. The Jewish people were blinded by this seemingly enlightened endorsement of their right to be themselves and live according to the Torah. Just as easily as non-Jewish powers can grant us freedom to be independent and can grant each person the right to be sovereign in his own home, so too they can decree “to destroy, to kill, and annihilate all the Jews from youth to elderly, children and women on a single day”.
Surely we needed an extraordinary open miracle to save us from the dire predicament that we faced? Most people would tend to think that a world full of miracles is indicative of the greatness and righteousness of the generation living in such an age, as they are worthy of unnatural phenomena to be performed for them. But if we look deeper we will see that, in fact, the opposite is true. Hashem, who is infinitely capable and unlimited, created His world perfectly balanced and good, as the Torah testifies, “And Hashem saw all that He had made and behold it was very good.” If Hashem wished to still make further supernatural adjustments to his completed world, why would he take a look at it after its initial creation and declare it to be “very good”? Surely, G-d can create His world perfect from the outset and not have to wait until a later stage to readjust it to His liking and have to make any miraculous changes, whether permanent or temporary, to nature.
Although there are times, for example, when Hashem took us out of Egypt, where He broke the laws of nature so that He could demonstrate His complete and utter mastery over the physical world, for an intelligent and truly enlightened person, such open miracles are not necessary, as such a person sees what we call nature as consisting solely of miracles and wonders from G-d. King David, for example, upon looking at nature, proclaimed, “The heavens declare the Glory of G-d…” Upon seeing the ocean, plants, and animals, he was astonished at the wondrous creation as if he had just witnessed its marvel for the first time. Upon observing his body, King David exclaimed, “All of my bones speak out – oh G-d, who is like you!” It is just the regularity and perpetual consistency of the myriad miracles of nature that dulls its novelty to our senses and minds. “Day in and day out and nightly too do the utterances speak out and none go unheard, their voices carry to the ends of the earth…”
Therefore, the wise, whose hearts and minds are alert to reality, see Hashem’s providence all the time. Those, whose senses are dulled to this reality, struggle to notice G-d’s involvement even in extraordinary events. They don’t invest significant attention to miraculous events beyond just a temporary wave of inspiration before they – like a hypnotised volunteer – ‘sleep’ and return to their idling state of mindless dwaal. Like, for example, King Ahab, who witnessed all the miracles performed before the whole assembly at Mount Carmel via the Prophet Eliyahu, when all those present declared with total conviction, “Hashem Hu HaElokim” (Hashem, He is G-d!), reverted back to his old self when he arrived home to his wicked wife, Jezebel.
This insight was used by Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschitz to explain a seemingly strange statement in the Talmud. Our sages have a tradition that Psalm 22, “To the conductor upon the Morning Star,” was prayed by Queen Esther: “Why is Esther likened to the morning? Just as the morning is the end to the whole night, so too Esther was the end to all miracles.” This statement seems quite strange since, if it is so that Esther is the “end of all the miracles”, then surely it is more analogous to compare her to the beginning of the night or perhaps the end of the day not to the end of the night?! As, if no more miracles are to be anticipated after her time and we would from then on be left without a miraculous component to our salvation, then surely we can be described as being, literally, “left in the dark”?!
According to the above insight, however, we can see that likening Esther to the morning is indeed appropriate, because only in prior times, when nature and events in the world were looked upon as being developments and progressions of the self-standing system of natural existence – created by Hashem but left to independently operate – only then in that ‘dark age’ were open miracles needed to announce the presence of Hashem. But now, with the events of the Purim story and the Men of the Great Assembly and Ezra the Scribe, where Torah became disseminated throughout the Jewish nation and everyone was illuminated with the knowledge of Hashem – from now on it was no longer necessary for the flow of nature to be interrupted with miraculous episodes.
Therefore, Esther is likened to the morning – the end of the night – as the darkness, ie. the obscured vision that the Jewish people had up until the time of the Purim story in which they didn’t clearly see or recognise the extent of Hashem’s presence and involvement in the natural world, finally dissipated, and we came to live with clear vision, as clear as day with the light of Torah.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi explained that this is why these men were called “the Men of the Great Assembly”; because they restored the crown to its pristine glory. Moshe had originally described Hashem as, “the Great, Mighty, and Awesome G-d”, but as the generations progressed, and the Jewish people suffered tremendous abuse, humiliation, and loss, the various prophets expressed the manifestation of Hashem from within the Jewish nation with lesser adjectives: Yirmiyahu said “…where is Your Awesomeness?” and Daniel said “…where is Your Greatness?” But the Men of the Great Assembly proclaimed that, “On the contrary – this is His Greatness…and these are His Awesome deeds, as how else could one Jewish nation endure among seventy hostile nations!” Indeed, how ‘great’ these leaders of the nation were that they instilled the light of Torah so firmly into all the Jewish nation, so that we as a nation reaffirmed and adopted the Torah despite the fact that Hashem’s presence in the events of Purim was fully camouflaged. The Jewish nation saw in the darkest dealings involving Haman and Achashverosh the brightest and clearest presence of Hashem. Therefore, they considered it fitting to add an account of the Purim story to the cannon of the Tanach (the holy scriptures).
This is what Mordechai saw very clearly when the Megilla says, “Mordechai new all that had happened.” He saw by the true light of Torah that it was our lack of connection to Hashem that was behind all the natural developments, and that Haman and Achashverosh were simply just ‘the rod of Hashem’s anger’, being used to direct us to reconnect with the role that Hashem had mapped out for us in His world. And, therefore, it was totally obvious to Mordechai that, even as a senior minister in the government, he could not change anything via the various political means at his disposal. Even though, surely, there would be factions within the hierarchy that would be jealous of Haman and keen on bringing him down even just for their own personal political advancements, Mordechai didn’t bother at all with such manoeuvrings and machinations. Instead, he immediately put on sack-cloth and went about the city wailing a great and bitter cry, oblivious to any political considerations. He knew with certainty that it was only Hashem’s direct management that had brought these events about and that it was only Hashem’s providence that could change it.
So too, Queen Esther saw clearly that her efforts would only be successful if Hashem willed it to be. She, therefore, replied to Mordechai’s request that she go before the king without having been summoned by him saying, “Go assemble all the Jews who are present in Shushan and fast on my behalf…then I will go to the king contrary to the law – and, if I perish, I perish.” Esther instructed that only if the Jewish people were connected to each other (ie. “assembled”) and together reached out and connected to Hashem then He would guide and conduct nature to allow her efforts in approaching the king to be successful. If the Jews would not unify and reach out to Hashem, Esther knew that her own intervention would have no chance of success.
Our Sages also teach, “It was revealed and known to Hashem that Haman was going to weigh out Shekalim against Israel, therefore He pre-empted their [the Jews’] Shekels to his [Haman’s]…” Hashem had instructed us in the mitzvah of the silver half-Shekel many years prior to Haman offering to buy the right to destroy the Jews with 10 000 Talents of silver from King Achashverosh. The announcement about the annual half-Shekel was made at the beginning of the month of Adar. We still read a special maftir on Shabbos about the half-Shekel just before that month and it is customary to give a half-coin unit of the local currency as a remembrance of this mitzvah at Mincha on the fast of Esther. This half-Shekel given each year was used to take a census of the nation. No one could give more than a half-Shekel, nor could anyone give less. This symbolised the unity that is critical to the Jewish nation. No single Jew is ever on his own nor can he stand only on his own – he is only, at best, a half. We each need to stand together with one another and only then can we be a complete entity. These annual half-Shekels were also used to pay for the communal sacrifices and other communal expenses in the Temple in Yerushalayim, “an atonement for each soul”. So, this half-Shekel used to count the people – what for most nations would be an exercise in assessing its physical might – was instead spent and utilised in reinforcing the spiritual connection of the nation with Hashem, as that is truly where our strength lies.
These great leaders Mordechai, Esther, and the Men of the Great Assembly, who ordained the celebration of Purim, brought the Jewish people to the realisation that Hashem is indeed ‘the Great, Mighty, and Awesome G-d’, even without having to manifest His Divine presence with supernatural miracles. Even though we were originally compelled to accept the Torah at Har Sinai (with Hashem famously holding the mountain over our heads), as a result of the events of Purim we voluntarily renewed our connection and commitment to the Torah in the days of Achashverosh, as it was now all too clear that this was the only way to be assured of our existence. We came to fully realise that our connection to Hashem and His Torah is what we must preserve and it is, in truth, what preserves us. Miraculous phenomena are only needed to help convince those who don’t yet see clearly how Hashem’s perfect world is ‘tov me’od’ (very good) and doesn’t need any further tweaking. Hashem’s Hand was so clear to us that the performance of open, supernatural miracles would have diminished our realisation.
“LaYehudim Hay’sa Orah” (for the Jews there was light) – when we have the light of Torah, and we can see everything with clarity, we can come to Ruach HaKodesh (Divine inspiration) and prophecy and incorporate even the seemingly story-like news events of the letter of Esther into the holy scriptures of Tanach. Therefore, not only do we commemorate the miraculous salvation of Purim by celebrating with a festive meal, but we read this letter of Esther which narrates the almost decade-long series of events that comprise the Purim story, which itself is a declaration of praise and Hallel to Hashem. Also critical to our commemoration of Purim is the sending of gifts to one another as well as the giving of gifts to the poorer among us who, although materially may possess less, in the half-Shekel national contribution are of identical critical importance to our national oneness and unity. So too, we celebrate the fast of Esther as a significant day, as the Jews also incorporated into their celebration of these days of Purim “commemorations of the fasts and their crying out”  to Hashem. As these were the things with which we moved ourselves to reconnect and unify as one nation with the one G-d through recommitting to His one Torah and with this recipe we came to know how we could ensure our natural survival forever.
This article is adapted from a drasha by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Mirvish (1872 – 1947), ztz”l, of Cape Town, who was a student of Slabodka and Telz. Arriving in 1908, he was the first fully qualified rabbi (with smicha) in the Cape Colony. He led the Cape Town Orthodox Hebrew Congregation (the Beth Hamedrash HaChadash) then situated in the Constitution Street Synagogue in District Six. He was the founder and Av Beis Din of Cape Town. His book Zichron Ya’akov (Jerusalem 1924) was written by the behest of and ultimately in honour of the memory of his son Ya’akov Mordechai, who died tragically in the influenza epidemic of 1918 (bio credit: Cecil Helman). UK Chief Rabbi Mirvis is a relative.
Aron Ziegler has learned for over 15 years at the Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg, including five years full-time. He was among the first students of Hirsch Lyons School. For more than 10 years, he served as the spiritual leader of the Kensington Hebrew Congregation. He regularly leins at the Doorfontein Lions Shul Shabbos Morning Minyan and also leads a learning group weekday mornings at Cyrildene Shul. He strives, in the words of his beloved Rosh Yeshivah’s rebbe, to be a ‘Torah Jew’.
- See Esther 3:10 ↑
- Megillah 14a ↑
- Megillah 14a-b ↑
- Maharsha on Megilla 12a ↑
- Esther 3:13 ↑
- Tehillim 19:2 ↑
- See e.g., Tehillim 104 ↑
- Tehillim 35:10 ↑
- Tehillim 19:3-5 ↑
- Kings 1, 18:39 ↑
- Ya’aros Devash 1.3 and 2.2 ↑
- See Yoma 29a ↑
- See Megilla 15b ↑
- Yoma 69b ↑
- Devarim 10:17 ↑
- Esther 4:1 ↑
- See Megillah 13b ↑
- Shemos 30:12 ↑
- Shabbas 88a ↑
- Esther 9:31. See Rashi (Megillah 4a. Ul’Shanosa Bayom), who explains why we read the Megillah twice (once at night and then again during the day of Purim) as we commemorate that we cried out to Hashem by day and by night. ↑
- See Beis Yosef 686 ↑