SALT - Tuesday, 5 Adar Bet 5776 - March 15, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            Earlier this week, we noted the Gemara’s comment (Sanhedrin 96b, Gittin 57b) that a descendant of Haman was a Torah educator in Bnei-Brak.  As we saw, the version of the text of the Gemara brought by the Ein Yaakov identifies this descendant as Rav Shemuel bar Sheilat.

            The Gemara tells of Rav Shemuel bar Sheilat elsewhere, in Masekhet Bava Batra (8b), where we read that his colleague, Rav, once saw him standing in his garden.  Rav suspected that Rav Shemuel was neglecting his duties, leaving the children under his charge unattended while taking a leisurely stroll through his garden.  He turned to Rav Shemuel and criticized him for his neglect, and Rav Shemuel explained that he had not been in his garden for thirteen years, and that even as he strolled in his garden, he was thinking about his students and their educational needs.

            If, indeed, Rav Shemuel was a descendant of Haman, then we might view this story in light of the theme of hester – illusion and concealment – that features so prominently in the story of Megillat Ester and the Purim celebration.  The nation of Amalek, from which Haman hailed, is often associated with the doctrine of random happenstance, the belief that all world affairs unfold randomly, without any rhyme or reason and without being governed by Providence.  Amalek’s assault on Benei Yisrael is described in the Torah without any background or context, suggesting that this was a random, spontaneous attack.  The story of the Megilla appears to be merely a random sequence of events that coincidentally result in a threat to the Jews which ended up being averted.  But behind this “mask” of random happenstance was the Hand of God orchestrating events and lovingly protecting His people.  Moreover, the Jews at the time were distant both geographically and culturally from their homeland.  Chazal’s famous description of the vessels of the Beit Ha-mikdash being used at Achashverosh’s feast is likely intended to underscore the contrast between what should have been and what was; between the Jews’ solemn, soulful service of God in the Temple, and their decadent revelry in Achashverosh’s palace.  But just as it appeared that they had detached themselves entirely from their spiritual roots, it became apparent that they were still under God’s protection and that the spark of religious devotion had remained intact throughout the Babylonian exile and simply needed to be reignited.

            And so we celebrate the Purim miracle by hiding behind masks, by concealing our true identity, and by conducting ourselves in a manner that appears very distant from anything connected to God and Torah.  The great joy of Purim is the joy of knowing that even when it seems as though we have drifted away from our roots, God still accompanies us, and deep inside we remain forever devoted to His service. 

            This concept is reinforced by Rav Shemuel bar Sheilat, who avowed that he tended to his students’ educational needs even when he was not actually in the classroom with them.  A descendant of Amalek strolling in a garden does not outwardly appear as something significant or sacred.  But Rav Shemuel teaches us that even activities which seem distant from spirituality can, indeed, be imbued with meaning and holiness if performed the right way, at the right time, for the right reasons and with the right motivation.  As we demonstrate on Purim, avodat Hashem is not limited to the inherently sacred realms of prayer, mitzvot and Torah study.  Even ordinary, outwardly insignificant pursuits can be made lofty and meaningful if they are approached with a sincere desire to serve God and further our spiritual goals.