SALT - Thursday, 9 Adar 5780 - March 5, 2020

  • Rav David Silverberg
            Megilat Ester tells that when Ester – who was unaware of Haman’s edict to annihilate the Jews – heard that Mordekhai was in the public square wearing sackcloth and weeping, she summoned one of her servants – Hatakh – to go to Mordekhai (4:5).  Hatakh then became the messenger through whom Mordekhai and Ester communicated, as Mordekhai implored Ester to petition the king on the Jews’ behalf.
            The Gemara in Masekhet Megila (15a) surprisingly identifies Hatakh as Daniel, the Jew who had served as a distinguished royal advisor to the Babylonian kings, and then to the Persian kings after Persia seized control over the region.  According to one opinion cited by the Gemara, Daniel is referred to by the name “Hatakh” because “chatekhuhu mi-gedulato” – “they ‘sliced’ him from his position of greatness.”  Rashi explains that Daniel held a prestigious position in the royal courts of the Babylonian king Belshatzar, and then of the Persian kings Cyrus and Darius, but under Achashveirosh’s rule, he was demoted, and became just an ordinary servant of the queen.  According to the second opinion, to the contrary, Daniel was given the name “Hatakh” because “kol divrei malkhut nechetakhin al piv” – “all royal matters were decided by his word.”  Daniel remained a well-respected royal advisor even under Achashveirosh, to the point where his decisions on all matters were considered authoritative.
            Rav Meir Simcha Ha-kohein of Dvinsk, in his Meshekh Chokhma, suggests a much different reading of the first opinion presented by the Gemara.  Perhaps uncomfortable with two Amoraim offering diametrically opposed perspectives on Daniel’s stature, Meshekh Chokhma explains that both views actually agree that Daniel held a prestigious position even during Achashveirosh’s reign.  However, Meshekh Chokhma writes, the first view maintained that Daniel’s stature in the eyes of the Jews of his time was lowered during the events of the Purim story.  Daniel was revered for his unwavering faith in God, as he continued his practice of praying to God three times each day even when this was banned by the Persian government at the threat of death, an offense for which he was cast to a lions’ den.  From that time on, Daniel was a legend and an iconic spiritual figure.  Now, however, in response to Haman’s edict, all the Jews exhibited great faith and self-sacrifice.  Haman’s explanation for why the Jews should be annihilated was that they followed different customs than the rest of the empire (“dateihem shonot mi-kol am” – 3:9).  The Jews’ natural, instinctive reaction would have been to adjust their behavior accordingly, to assimilate more fully than they already had within Persian society, in their attempt to escape Haman’s edict.  But instead, they turned to God, fasting and assembling for prayer, strengthening – rather than abandoning – their religious commitment.  Through this process, Meshekh Chokhma boldly suggests, the Jews discovered within themselves a degree of greatness that narrowed the gap, so-to-speak, between them and legends such as Daniel.  According to Meshekh Chokhma, this is the meaning of “chatekhuhu mi-gedulato” – the Jews’ awe of Daniel was diminished, as they awakened within themselves a level of devotion and sacrifice which resembled that which had been displayed by Daniel.
            Meshekh Chokhma’s comments touch upon one of the important themes of the Purim story and the Purim celebration – newfound appreciation of our positive qualities and our achievements.  Although the Jews in Persia continued some Jewish practices, as Haman noted to Achashveirosh, they nevertheless had assimilated into Persian society, as indicated by the Gemara’s famous remark that the Jews of Shushan participated in Achashveirosh’s feast (Megila 12a).  The Gemara further states (12a), perhaps metaphorically, that Achashveirosh at this feast wore the garments of the kohen gadol and used the utensils that had been used in the Beit Ha-mikdash – teaching that the Jews had substituted in their minds the solemn service of the Temple with the decadent feasts of Shushan.  They were submerged in the vanity, overindulgence and depravity of Persian society, and thus naturally felt very distant from God.  Their response to Haman’s edict aroused within them a spiritual spark which they did not know existed, a connection to God of which they had been unaware.  And thus they saw themselves as less different and distant from Daniel’s stature than they had previously thought.
            Much has been said about the enigmatic Kabbalistic tradition (originating in the Tikunei Zohar) linking Purim and Yom Kippur, two occasions which we observe in diametrically opposite ways.  These two days are, in several respects, mirror images of one another.  On Yom Kippur, we reflect on our failings, focusing on what we have done wrong and what more we could have done right, taking note of how far we are from the people we are capable of becoming and expected to become.  This is a painful, agonizing process, and thus we fast, deny ourselves physical enjoyment, repeatedly confess our sins, and somberly commit to try to improve.  On Purim, we do just the opposite – instead of agonizing over who we are not, we celebrate who we are.  We drink to the point of (mild) inebriation, clouding our judgment and our decision-making faculties, such that we reveal our innermost characters, discovering the beauty of the essence of our beings.  Whereas we spend Yom Kippur thinking of how we can and must be better, we spend Purim focusing on how good we already are, celebrating the fact that even when we take away our rational abilities, our inner core is beautiful and firmly committed to God. 
On Yom Kippur, we are tormented by the contrast between us and “Daniel,” the outstanding person that we are capable of being, as we think long and hard of all the mistakes we have made and all the flaws in our conduct and characters.  On Purim, without deluding ourselves into equating ourselves with “Daniel,” we celebrate the fact that we are not as different from “Daniel” as we might have thought.  We focus on all the good we have done and regularly do, on all the achievements in which we can legitimately take pride, on all that is right and precious about our conduct and our characters.  While on every other day we work and struggle to improve and grow, on Purim we experience the incomparable joy of genuine pride and satisfaction, directing our attention to all that is good about us and about our special nation, thereby developing the excitement, enthusiasm and inspiration we need to continue and reach even higher.