SALT - Thursday, Purim 5775

  • Rav David Silverberg

            The Gemara in Masekhet Megila (7a) relates that in the aftermath of the Purim miracle, Ester sent a message to the leading Sages of the time, asking “kitvuni le-dorot” – that a written account of the miracle be canonized as part of the Tanakh.  The Sages consented only upon discovering a subtle allusion in the Chumash sanctioning the writing of this story.  Until that point, they refused to include Megilat Ester as part of the Tanakh. 

            Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Musar Ha-mishna, suggests a possible explanation for why the Sages were hesitant to write the story of Megilat Ester for posterity.  The Jews were saved as a result of a thoroughly undesirable situation, whereby a Jewish girl was married to gentile king.  It was Ester’s position in the royal court, and her physical attractiveness and charm, which appealed to Achashverosh and led him to kill Haman and allow the Jews to defend themselves.  The miracle came about through conditions that we should actually be trying to avoid.  By canonizing this story, the Sages of the time feared, they might be mistakenly viewed as approving of Ester’s marriage to Achashverosh and the circumstances which led to the Jews’ salvation.  And thus they agreed to write down the story and include it as part of the Kitvei Ha-kodesh only after finding a Scriptural basis for doing so. 

            Underlying this insight is a fundamental dilemma that arises from one of the primary themes of the Purim story.  This story demonstrates that God accompanies the Jewish people in places we would never expect Him to be, and that He assists us under circumstances when we appear hardly deserving of His assistance.  The Megila elaborates in great detail when describing the extravagance and vanity of Persian society, into which the Jews had assimilated, in order to underscore just how far they were from spirituality and Godliness.  Rather than celebrating the shalosh regalim in the Beit Ha-mikdash, they celebrated in Achashverosh’s palace.  They lived submerged in a shallow culture of indulgence, merriment and promiscuity, after having been driven from the Land of Israel and losing the Mikdash.  And yet, even there, even under such circumstances, God did not abandon them and still made His presence felt, albeit subtly.  For this reason, we celebrate Purim by conducting ourselves in a manner that seems very distant from anything spiritual or meaningful.  We indulge, act silly, and even become intoxicated – all of which are in direct contrast with the disciplined, focused and dignified lifestyle required by the Torah – to demonstrate that God remains with us even we seem to move away from spirituality, that we maintain our connection to the Almighty even under the cultural conditions of Shushan.  Yom Kippur is often viewed as the flipside of Purim because on Yom Kippur we feel God’s presence and thus strive to live on as high a spiritual plane as possible, whereas on Purim we proclaim that we feel and experience God’s presence even when we seem distant from spirituality. 

            The danger of this celebration, however, is that it might be mistaken for an ideal.  We might begin to feel, if God accompanies us even in “Shushan,” if we can experience spirituality even amid the merrymaking and festivities of Purim, then why bother with “Yom Kippur”?  Why must we strive to elevate ourselves if God is guaranteed to remain with us even if we remain low?  

            This, it seems, was the cause of the Sages’ hesitation.  The Purim story shows that God is with us even when we seem unworthy, which is a vital message to convey for the periods when as individuals or collectively we fall into spiritual decline.  On the other hand, this message might discourage spiritual growth by indicating that we never need to worry, that God accompanies and helps us regardless of our spiritual stature.  Ultimately, Chazal concluded – after finding a source in the Chumash – that it was preferable to provide us with the encouragement and assurance we need in periods of decline, despite the risk of sowing complacency.  But just as the Sages decided to document the Purim story, so did the Gemara document their hesitation, to remind us that although God accompanies us even when we fall, we are to try to ensure this never happens, and to continue working to grow and advance, even while knowing that the Almighty will be there to catch us when we fall.

 

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