Dedicated in honor of my sons, Gavriel and Yehuda, on the occasion of their putting on tefillin for the first time.
We read in the Megilla of the festivity and jubilation experienced by the Jews upon hearing of Haman’s downfall and their being granted the right to defend themselves: “La-Yehudim hayeta ora ve-simcha ve-sasson vi-ykar” (“The Jews experienced light, joy, jubilation and glory” – 8:16). The Gemara in Masekhet Megilla (16b) explains the four terms in this verse (“ora,” “simcha,” “sasson,” “yekar”) as allusions to four mitzvot to which the Jews recommitted themselves at this time. The final term, “yekar,” is associated with the mitzva of tefillin.
The word “yekar” appears earlier in the Megilla, in two contexts. The purpose of Achashverosh’s first feast, held for his servants and officers, was to show “yekar tiferet gedulato” – the glory and majesty of his wealth (1:4). Later, Achashverosh asks Haman what should be done to a person “whom the king wishes to give glory” (“asher ha-melekh chafeitz bi-ykaro” – 6:6). The word “yekar” in the Megilla thus denotes lavish displays of grandeur, objects or actions intended to draw people’s attention and gain their respect and admiration. The Gemara teaches that for us, “yekar” is achieved through tefillin, the sign of our bond with God and His Torah. The only outward display that brings us honor is the tefillin on our arms and heads, which signifies our special relationship with the Almighty.
In truth, the connection between tefillin and the Purim story may run even deeper.
One of the concepts underlying tefillin is our quest to make the words of the Torah part of our being and essence. Tefillin is not just worn; it is tied onto our bodies, signifying our intrinsic bond with the Torah, portions of which are contained in the tefillin. Perhaps more than other mitzvot, tefillin represents our desire to internalize Torah to the point where it is an inherent part of who we are.
On Purim, we celebrate the fact that even when we appear distant from spirituality and the service of God, deep down we remain committed and connected to the Almighty. The threat of Haman had the effect of igniting the spiritual spark within the Jews of Persia which had faded over the course of their assimilation and engagement in the Persian culture of indulgence and decadence. We therefore celebrate Purim through merrymaking and frivolity, acting in a manner that would seem to belie the presence of any spiritual ambitions and potential. We do this to show that as in the time of Mordekhai and Ester, we are, at our core, committed to God even when we appear distant and detached from Him. And we are enjoined to drink to the point of inebriation, where we act on instinct and impulse, incapable of patient, rational decision-making, in order to show that our deepest instincts are to obey God’s laws and connect to Him.
In Kabbalistic tradition, Purim is associated with what we might describe as its antithesis – Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, we work and struggle to rise to the greatest possible heights of spiritual achievement. On Purim, we do just the opposite – we disengage the mind and act on instinct, without any struggle or effort, to show that our deepest instinct is to serve God. Although we are as yet far from perfect, and although throughout the rest of the year we are to work and exert ourselves to grow and improve, on Purim we celebrate the fact that spirituality is part of our very core and essence. Even when we fail, we are, at our core, committed to God and to His laws. And thus both Yom Kippur and Purim reflect our unique potential for greatness. On Yom Kippur, we show how great we can become, and on Purim, we show the immensity of our spiritual potential even when it outwardly seems we have none.
In the kingdom of Achashverosh, “yekar” is achieved through external displays of wealth and prestige. For us, “yekar” is achieved internally, by making Torah part of our very essence, as represented by the tefillin, the words of Torah tied tightly onto our bodies so they become integral to our beings.