Category Archives: PURIM

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The Evidence in the Barrel

Back in a previous lifetime, when I was a mesivta rebbe, I once heard a menahel exhort our talmidim to not get carried away on Purim.  As an illustration, he described how a certain Gadol on Purim simply went into his backyard and swung back and forth on a children’s swing.  The implication was that the Gadol hadn’t imbibed much.  I wasn’t so sure, myself. Ad d’lo yoda can express itself in different ways.

One thing is certain.  Kedoshim u’tehorim on Purim, unleashed from the constraints of full daas,  are more often seen singing and dancing spiritedly, even wildly, sharing divrei Torah and divrei sod that one might not ever hear from them the rest of the year.

Needless to say, and unfortunately, some who are less kadosh or tahor can overindulge on Purim and come to act very differently.  They may imbibe stronger things than wine (the preferred mitzvah) in excess, even to the degree of actually endangering themselves.  That is nothing short of a horrific Purim mask, an aveirah in the guise of a mitzvah.

But when the mitzvah is done right, though, even if the results are something more… well, dynamic than a placid visit to a backyard swing, something important about Klal Yisrael can be revealed.  After all, Rabi Iloi (Eruvin 65b) tells us that one way a person’s essence can be discerned is “in his cup,” in his behavior when inebriated.

Something so important, in fact, that I once witnessed a Purim celebration causing an Italian cook at a yeshivah where I once taught to investigate geirus.  By her admission, she told me that, over the years, she “had seen many people very drunk, but never so many people so drunk – without any fighting.”  All she saw was celebration, friendship, good humor and happiness, and that, she said, had impressed her beyond words.  (She was nevertheless dissuaded from her geirus plan.)

Chazal teach us (Shabbos, 88a) that something was lacking at Mattan Torah, and the lack only remedied centuries later in the Persian Empire.

Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chassa tells us there that “Hashem held the mountain over the Jews’ heads like a gigis [a barrel]” to force them to accept the Torah.  One approach to that statement is that it refers to the experience of being directly addressed by the Borei Olam.  Receiving direct communication from Hashem was so overwhelming, so traumatic, so crushing – after all, it caused our ancestors’ souls to leave them, and brought them to beg Moshe to be the only one to directly receive the final eight dibros – that it simply left no other choice but to accept His mission.

Experiencing the Divine fully does not leave one with truly free will to say “no.”

Rabbah comments that the “coercion” remained a remonstration against Klal Yisrael, that it colored our acceptance of the Torah as less than willful – until the “days of Achashverosh.”

For it was then that the Jews chose, entirely of their own volition, to perceive Hashem’s presence where there was no “mountain” held over their heads, where it was not only not overwhelming but not even obvious.  Our ancestors chose to see Divine Providence in seemingly mundane, if alarming, political happenings, took the events to heart as a message from Above, and responded with tefillah, taanis and teshuvah.  Thus, kiymu mah shekiblu kvar, they “completed” Mattan Torah, supplied what had been missing. The nation truly perceived Hashem, not only in thunder and lightning but in words inscribed on parchment and in a signet ring removed from a royal hand.

Moving back to what is revealed when Yidden have a proper simchas Purim, I’ve often wondered about Rav Avdimi’s strange choice of imagery. “Holding the mountain over their heads like a barrel.”  Wouldn’t a mountain looming above be galvanizing enough?  What’s with the barrel?

A gigis, however, throughout the Gemara, is a container for an intoxicating beverage.  Chazal’s description of the implement of coercion at Har Sinai, in other words, is a beer-barrel.

Rabi Meir in Pirkei Avos (4:20) admonishes us not “to look at the container, but at what it holds.” It wouldn’t seem outlandish to perceive some pertinence of that admonition to the gigis to which Har Sinai is compared. Or, in turn, to Purim, when wine allows the essence of Klal Yisrael, our truest nature, to be revealed.

Don’t dwell, Rabi Meir may be saying, on our compromised acceptance of Hashem at Har Sinai in a state of coercion, but rather at our wholehearted, free-willed embrace of Him in our states of mindless purity.

Masquerading As Feminism

On Purim, Jewish men, to varying degrees, imbibe strong drink, and Jewish women do their best to keep them safe and anchored in civilization.  The holiday thus may not seem very female-centered.  But it is.

Not just because its hero is a heroine and the holy book about the historical event it commemorates is named after her, but because Megillas Esther verily revolves around femininity.

The pliable, preposterous monarch we meet at the Megillah’s start is a poster child (or, perhaps better, poster adolescent) for male chauvinism.  His 180-day drinking party, as the Talmud describes it, was a bacchanal of arrested-development “good ol’ boys” acting like louts, and entailed the debasement, and eventual execution, of his queen.

And the next action of the foolhardy king was to organize the antithesis of true respect for women: a beauty contest.

And Achashverosh, of course, ends up being manipulated by a woman, our reticent, modest heroine Esther, and led by her to dispatch the Jews’ mortal enemy, saving her people from his evil plans.

But there’s a good deal more here, too, although it’s a good deal more subtle.  Mordechai, the Midrash teaches us, was miraculously able to physically nurse the baby Esther when she was orphaned.  Thus the male hero of the Purim story is rendered, at least in a way, something of a heroine himself.

And the Talmud’s very exhortation that a man is to drink “ad d’lo yada,” – literally, “until he doesn’t know…” – can be seen as a subtle reference to another Talmudic statement, that “nashim da’atan kalos.”   That aphorism, often mistranslated as “women’s minds are weak,” is more accurately rendered “women’s daas is light.”  That is to say that the psychological entity called daas (the root of both the words yada and da’atan) is less sharply present in women than in men (while another entity, binah, is more present in women than in men).  What each of those entities precisely refers to isn’t for here and now, or for the likes of me to try to fathom.  But still and all, ad d’lo yada can be seen as implying some sort of “feminization” of the aspirant.  So men who “successfully” achieve the spiritual goal of drinking on Purim might be said to have in some way connected with their inner female.

Surprising and sublime thoughts like those are lost, however, on many people, certainly those who imagine they are somehow taking a stand for womanhood by celebrating, of all people, Vashti.

Yes, Vashti.  The villainess of the Purim story, who enslaved, beat and humiliated Jewish women, and forced them to do work for her on the Sabbath.

What seems to have endeared Vashti to some simpleminded opinionators is her refusal (although out of sheer vanity) to obey Achashverosh’s summons to appear at his bash.  As one pundit put it: “Saving the Jewish people was important, but at the same time, [Esther’s] whole submissive, secretive way of being was the absolute archetype of 1950’s womanhood. It repelled me. I thought, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with Vashti? She had dignity. She had self-respect’.”

Well, self-regard, anyway.  So did Ilse Koch, the “Beast of Buchenwald,” who stood up to her accusers in a West German court.  But never mind.

Another writer describes Vashti as “a brave woman who risked her life for her beliefs,” seeing the Megillah’s message as, “Women who are bold, direct, aggressive, and disobedient are not acceptable; the praiseworthy women are those who are unassuming, quietly persistent…” and laments “the still-pervasive influence of the Esther-behavior model.”

And yet another advocate, a Reform rabbi, presumably oblivious to why feet are stomped at parts of Megillah readings, wrote: “Why aren’t we insisting that our synagogue communities cheer and stomp their feet at the mention of Vashti’s name? She is a foremother in the best sense of the word—assertive, appropriate, courageous.”

Although it’s hardly the first time it has happened, it’s sad to see a carefully preserved Jewish historical tradition sacrificed on the altar of a contemporary ism.

But something’s sadder here, a tragic sort of vinahapoch hu.  In their blind dedication to the contemporary notion of feminism, the sacrificers here not only mangle the Megillah and mistake a malevolent oppressor for a role model.  They miss entirely the genuinely feminist message of the Book of Esther: that the true power of womanhood isn’t to be found in trappings of manhood like self-regard and obstinateness, but in the embrace of the quintessentially feminine traits of modesty, selflessness, faith and courage.

© 2014 Rabbi Avi Shafran

 

The Gorilla’s Lesson

The little boy was petrified, as one might imagine, by the gorilla who sat down next to him at the table in his (the child’s) home. I hadn’t meant to scare the kid; I was just tired and needed to get off my paws.

It was a very long-ago Purim (the child is now a father and accomplished talmid chochom) and a group of us had rented costumes to use in Purim visits to homes while collecting for a worthy charity. The gorilla suit was very realistic (and very hot).

Sheftel, as I’ll call the boy (because it’s his name) was around three years old at the time. I was around 19. I felt bad, and immediately removed my head—that is to say the gorilla’s.

Sheftel’s eyes shrunk back to their normal size and the scream that had lodged in his lungs never made it to his wide open mouth. He saw it was only me.

When, a bit later, I replaced my gorilla head, Sheftel let out a scream. I reminded him from inside that it was only me. He screamed again. I took off the head and he immediately calmed down. I put it back on and, once again, he screamed.

Children, apparently, have to reach a certain stage before they realize that a costume is only a costume, that the person wearing it remains the person wearing it even when he’s wearing it. Sheftel had yet to internalize that truth.

Related and more poignant is the lesson of an old Yiddish joke, about Yankel informing Yossel that, unfortunately, Shmelkeh had just passed away. “Shmelkeh?” asks Yossel, “the guy with the oversized ears?”

“Yes, that Shmelkeh,” Yankel says sadly.

“The fellow with the terrible skin condition, the rash covering most of his face?

“Yes,” once again.

“The Shmelkeh missing an eye, and with the large wart on his chin?

“Yes, yes, that Shmelkeh,” Yankel confirms.

“Oy!” exclaims Yossel. “Azah shaineh Yid!” (“Such a beautiful Jew!”)

Superficial things, we come to realize if we’re perceptive, are, well, superficial. Masks, in other words, mask.

The theme of misleading appearances is, of course, central to Purim. Esther, the heroine of the historical happening commemorated on the day, hides her identity from the king who takes her as his queen. Her very name is rooted in the Hebrew word for “hidden,” and is hinted to, the Talmud teaches us, in words the Torah uses to refer to Hashem “hiding” Himself, rendering his providence undetectable.

Which it is in the Purim story. The absence of Hashem’s name from Megillas Esther reflects the fact that His presence was not overtly evident in what happened. Yet, His “absence” was itself but a mask; Divine providence, in the form of delicious ironies, informs the story at every turn. From Achashverosh’s execution of his first queen to suit his advisor and then execution of his advisor to suit his new queen; to Mordechai’s happenstance overhearing and exposure of a plot that comes to play a pivotal role in Klal Yisroel’s salvation; to Haman’s visiting the king at the perfectly wrong time… Hashem’s presence loudly hums, so to speak, in the background. If anything merits being called The Purim Principle it would be: Nothing is an Accident.

Even the very symbol of meaningless chance, the casting of lots, turns out to be Divinely directed and crucial to the Purim miracle.

Klal Yisrael, too, is “masked.” The people seem beholden to an idolatrous, lecherous king, and readily participate in his grand ball where he celebrates, of all things, the finality of the Beis Hamikdosh’s destruction, chalila.

But that was, as the Talmud teaches us, a merely superficial stance. In truth, behind the unimpressive Jewish veneer lay Jewish hearts dedicated to Hashem. And when events began to blow like a strong wind, the masks were ripped away. Our ancestors, in their fasting and prayers, showed their true essence.

Is it any wonder that on Purim we wear masks? And make fun—of ourselves and even (good naturedly) of others? What we mock are the masks we all wear, the particular character each of us projects. The mockery declares that such things are superficialities, camouflaging what really matters: the Jewish soul that resides in, and ultimately defines, us.

© 2012 AMI MAGAZINE

Mindless Purity

I’m hesitant to put my Mama Jean story in writing.  There’s so much improper imbibing on Purim, so much regarding of “lib’sumi” (to become tipsy) as license instead of mitzvah

But the story’s too good, and its message too meaningful, to leave unshared.

“Mama Jean,” as she liked to be called, was the cook in a small yeshiva where I studied many, many years ago.  She was a very large, very jovial, very middle-aged ethnic Italian from “the other side of the tracks.”  While she was serving us pasta with meat sauce, her son was serving a life sentence in San Quentin.

Her first year with the yeshiva brought revelations to both us and her.  We learned about fresh oregano.  And she learned about strange Jews.  How they could feast so incessantly on Sabbaths and holidays, eating odd things like cholent, and how they suddenly ate nothing at all on fast days.

When Purim was imminent, we thought Mama Jean should be prepared for yet a new strangeness.  Gingerly, we told her about breaking the fast after Taanit Esther, about the festivities of that night and the next day, about the festive meal, about how some might be drinking a bit more than they otherwise might.  She wasn’t fazed and not only prepared a royal spread (and special punch) for the yeshiva but watched the singing and dancing from the kitchen throughout the day.

It was a wonderful Purim, what I remember of it.  What I clearly remember, though, was an early morning later that week.  My mind is sharpest in pre-dawn hours, and I had entered the yeshiva’s beis medrash, or study hall. well before morning services.

Expecting an empty room, I was startled to see a formidable form sitting on the floor before a bookcase at the back of the hall.  Mama Jean was oblivious to my arrival, deeply engrossed in an English holy book that had been on a shelf.

When she sensed my presence, she was startled, and I apologized.  “But Mama Jean,” I said, “What are you doing here?”

She stood up and smiled sheepishly.  “Avi,” she said.  “I’m thinking about becoming Jewish.”

Mama Jean struck me as an unlikely convert (and, to the best of my knowledge, never became one).

“Why?” I asked, sincerely curious.  “Purim” was her response.

Her elaboration has remained with me for decades since.  “Over my years,” she explained, “I’ve seen a lot of people plenty drunk.  But I’ve never seen so many people so drunk… without a single fight.”  All that she had seen at the yeshiva, she explained, was friendship, joy, laughter, tears, and religious devotion.

Mama Jean, I realized, had sensed what the rabbis of the Talmud teach: that a person’s true character is evident in “his cup”—in how he acts when intoxicated.  She had perceived Klal Yisrael.

The Talmud (Shabbos, 88a) teaches that something was missing when our ancestors received the Torah at Mt.Sinai, something only supplied centuries later by the Jews in Persia at the time of Mordechai and Esther.

Because the revelation at Sinai involved an element of coercion: “G-d held the mountain over the Jews’ heads like a gigis (a barrel).”  Explains the Maharal: The powerful nature of the experience, the terrifying interaction of human and Divine, left no opportunity for true free choice.

And for years that “coercion” remained a moda’ah, a “remonstration,” against the Jewish People.  Until the Purim story.  Then, the Jews chose, entirely of their own volition, to perceive G-d’s presence where it was not obvious at all.  Instead of seeing the threat against them in mundane terms, they recognized it as G-d’s message, and responded with prayer, fasting, and repentance.  And by choosing to see G-d’s  hand, they supplied what was missing at Sinai, confirming that the Jewish acceptance of the Torah was—and is—wholehearted, sincere and pure.

When I think of my early morning conversation with Mama Jean, I think of the Talmud’s image of G-d “holding the mountain over their heads,” and, especially, of the phrase “like a barrel.”  What’s with that?  Is a mountain overhead not frightening enough?  Who ordered the barrel?

A gigis, however, throughout the Talmud, contains an intoxicating beverage.

In Pirkei Avos, we are taught not “to look at the container, but at what it holds.”  I suspect that advice may apply here.  The Jewish nation’s reaction to coercion may not reveal its truest nature; what does, though, is how we express our dedication in a state of mindless purity. 

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

Purim Present

On the first day of the Jewish month Adar, the Talmud enjoins us to “increase happiness.”  It is, after all, the month that holds Purim, when we express our gratitude to G-d for delivering the Jews in ancient Persia from their enemies, and when we give alms to the poor and gifts of food to one another.

In 2003, the first day of Adar brought us an early Purim present.  It wasn’t food, but rather food for thought.

The previous day had been the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Iosef Vissarionovich Dzugashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin.  A new book on the Soviet dictator and mass murderer, “Stalin’s Last Crime,” was about to be published, and The New York Times ran a lengthy article that day about the book, including its suggestion that Stalin may have been poisoned.  The Soviet leader had collapsed after an all-night dinner with four members of his Politburo at Blizhnaya, a north Moscow dacha, and he languished for several days before dying.  If indeed he was done in, as the book’s authors suspect, the likely culprit, they say, was Lavrenti P. Beria, the chief of the Soviet secret police.

The book also recounts the story of the infamous “Doctors’ Plot,” a fabricated collusion by Kremlin doctors to kill top Communist leaders.

“By the time Stalin disclosed the plot to a stunned Soviet populace in January 1953,” the article noted, “he had spun it into a vast conspiracy, led by Jews under the United States’ secret direction, to kill him and destroy the Soviet Union itself.”

The article went on to relate something less widely known.  “That February,” it states, “the Kremlin ordered the construction of four giant prison camps in Kazakhstan, Siberia and the Arctic north, apparently in preparation for a second great terror – this time directed at the millions of Soviet citizens of Jewish descent.”

That terror, however, thankfully never unfolded.  Two weeks after the camps were ordered built, Stalin attended the Blizhnaya dinner and, four days later, was dead at the age of 73.

The gift that Adar in 2003 brought was the knowledge of that theretofore unrecognized salvation, of what the killer of millions of his countrymen had apparently planned for the Jews under his control but which never came to pass.  That Stalin met his fate (however that may have happened) just as he was poised to launch a post-Holocaust holocaust of his own, is something we might well add to our thoughts of gratitude at our own Purim celebrations today, more than a half century later.

And we might note something else as well, especially during this season of meaningful ironies, when G-d’s hand is evident “between the lines” of history to all who are sufficiently sensitive to see it.

During the feast at which Stalin collapsed, according to his successor Nikita Khrushchev, who was present, the dictator had become thoroughly drunk.  And the party, he testified, ended in the early hours of March 1.

Which, in 1953, corresponded to the 14th day of Adar, otherwise known as Purim.

© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

Accidents Don’t Happen

With time, those with open eyes come to recognize that life is peppered with strange, small ironies – “coincidences” that others don’t even notice, or unthinkingly dismiss.

The famous psychiatrist Carl Jung puzzled over such happenings, which he felt were evidence of some “acausal connecting principle” in the world.  In a famous essay, he named the phenomenon “synchronicity.”

To those of us who believe in a Higher Power, synchronistic events, no matter how trivial they may seem, are subtle reminders that there is pattern in the universe, evidence of an ultimate plan.

My family has come to notice what appears to us to be an increase of such quirky happenings in our lives during the month (or, as this year, months) of Adar.

That would make sense, of course, since Adar is the month of Purim, the Jewish holiday that is saturated with seemingly insignificant “twists of fate” that turn out to be fateful indeed.  From King Achashverosh’s execution of his queen to suit his advisor and later execution of his advisor to suit his new queen; to Mordechai’s happenstance overhearing and exposure of a plot that comes to play a pivotal role in his people’s salvation; to Haman’s visiting the king at the very moment when the monarch’s insomnia has him wondering how to honor Mordechai; to the gallows’ employment to hang its builder…  The list of drolly fortuitous happenings goes on, and its upshot is what might be called The Purim Principle: Nothing is an Accident.

The holiday’s very name is taken from an act of chance – “purim” are the lots cast by Haman, who thinks he is accessing randomness but is in fact casting his own downfall.  He rejoices at his lottery’s yield of the month during which he will have the Jews destroyed: the month of Moses’ death.  He does not realize that it was the month, too, of his birth.

The contemporary Adar coincidences I’ve come to expect are often about trivial things, but they still fill me with joy, as little cosmic “jokes” that remind me of the Eternal.  One recent evening, for example, I remarked to my wife and daughter how annoying musical ringtones in public places are, especially when the cellphones are programmed, as they usually are, to assault innocent bystanders with jungle beats and rude shouting.  “Why can’t they use the Moonlight Sonata?” I quipped.

The very next day at afternoon services, someone’s cellphone went off during the silent prayer.  Usually my concentration is disturbed by such things but this time the synchronicity of the sound only made me more aware of the Divine.  Never before had I heard a phone play the Moonlight Sonata.

Only days later, my daughter saw a license plate that intrigued her.  It read: “Psalm 128.”  What a strange legend for a car, she thought.  That very night she accompanied her mother and me to a wedding.  Under the chuppah, unexpectedly, a group of young men sang a lovely rendition of… yes, you guessed it.

Other times, the Adar coincidences are more obviously meaningful, clearly linked to Purim.  A few Adars ago, a striking irony emerged from a new book about Joseph Stalin.  It related something previously unknown: that after the infamous 1953 “Doctors Plot,” a fabricated collusion of doctors and Jews to kill top Communist leaders, the Soviet dictator had ordered the construction of four giant prison camps in Siberia, “apparently,” as a New York Times article about the book put it, “in preparation for a second great terror – this time directed at the millions of Soviet citizens of Jewish descent.”

Two weeks later, though, Stalin took suddenly ill at a dinner party and, four days later, it was announced that he had died.  His successor Nikita Khrushchev recounted how the dictator had gotten thoroughly drunk at the dinner party, which ended in the early hours of March 1.  Which, that year, fell on the 14th of Adar, Purim.

This year, too, I was synchronicity-struck by an unexpected piece of Adar information.  It materialized as I did research for a speech I was to give about the destruction of a small Lithuanian town’s Jewish community during the Holocaust.

The most famous extant document about Nazi actions in Lithuania is what has come to be known as the Jager Report, after SS-Standartenfuehrer Karl Jager (whose surname, incidentally, means “hunter” in German; “as his name so was he”: he hunted Jews).  Filed on December 1, 1941, and labeled “Secret Reich Business,” the report meticulously details a “complete list of executions carried out in the EK [Einsatzkommando] 3 area” that year.

It records the number of men, women and children murdered in each of dozens of towns and ends with the grand total of the operation’s victims – 137,346 – and the words: “Today I can confirm that our objective, to solve the Jewish problem for Lithuania, has been achieved by EK3…”

Standartenfuehrer Jager, however, only oversaw the operation; he didn’t get his hands dirty with the actual work of shooting Jews.  That he left to a “raiding squad” of “8-10 reliable men from the Einsatzkommando,” led by a young Oberstumfuherer called Hamann.  Joachim Hamann.

May his name, and that of his ancient namesake, be blotted out, and our days be transformed, in the Book of Esther’s words, “from sorrow to gladness and from mourning to festivity.”

 © 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

Purim in the Valley of Tears

The below is by my esteemed father-in-law, R’ Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, a Polish-born survivor of three concentration camps, who lives in Toronto. It is adapted from his  book “Destined to Survive” (ArtsSroll.com).

 

We sat listlessly on our bunks, waiting impatiently for the high point of our day – our meager ration of bread.  It was my seventh month in Dachau’s Death Camp #4.

“Do you know that tomorrow is Purim?” I asked, trying to distract my brothers in suffering, and myself, from our painful hunger.

“How do you know?”

“It’s freezing! Purim can’t be for another month.”

“No, no!” some protested. “Srulik doesn’t make mistakes like that! He has a good memory.”

“Crazy Chassidim!” others grumbled. “You’ve nothing else to worry about besides when Purim falls this year? What’s the difference any more between Purim and Pesach, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? Isn’t it always Tisha B’Av?”

The debate gathered force among the block’s “mussulmen” – the eighty living skeletons crammed tightly into a virtual wooden tomb overgrown with grass.

It was the hour before nightfall.  We lay in the camp infirmary on wooden boards covered with a thin layer of straw, our eyes riveted on the curtain separating us from the block elder’s spacious quarters.

Suddenly the curtain parted, and the block elder stood there with his henchmen, bearing our bread rations; it had been nearly twenty-four hours.  Each inmate measured his ration wordlessly with his eyes, and compared it to his neighbor’s, each convinced that the other had received more.  At such times, best friends became bitter rivals and within minutes the stingy portions were devoured.  But our stomachs felt as empty as before, the gnawing hunger made all the more intolerable by the realization that it would be a full day before the next piece of bread.

Having just suffered through a bad bout of typhus, I fell back on my board, and fast asleep.

When I woke up the next morning, I felt dizzy; my head was like a leaden weight.  I began to conjure images of my past, of my parents and my sisters, Gittel and Mirel… how I used to study in the study-hall of the Chassidim of Ger.   Mostly, I remembered my grandfather, Reb Herschel, who loved me and would take me, his only grandson, along whenever he went to the Gerer Rebbe. I pictured the Chassidic leader’s face, his eyes overflowing with wisdom and love, penetrating my very soul.

Will I ever have the merit, I wondered, to press myself once again into the crowd of Chassidim gathering around the Rebbe, to learn from him how to be a good Chassid and a G-d-fearing person?

“Time to pray, Srulik.”

My friend’s voice shook me from my reverie.  The memories vanished.  I was back in the pit of hell.

“Yes, of course,” I said. “Let’s wash our hands and daven.”

Then it struck me.

“But it’s Purim!” I exclaimed.  “We have to organize a minyan!”

My pain and pangs receded.  Summoning strength, I went to wash my hands and face and then to find some others to complete our minyan. Perhaps, I thought, I might even find someone else who could recall a few more verses from the Megillah so that we might fulfill something of our sacred Jewish obligation to publicly read the Book of Esther.

G-d responds to good deeds undertaken with dedication.  A copy of the second book of the Bible, with the Book of Esther appended, was discovered by my friend, Itche Perelman, a member of the camp burial squad.

We were elated.  Such a find could only be a sign that our prayers had been received in Heaven and that the redemption was near.  Our excitement grew.  Who remembered the hunger, the cold, the filth, the degradation?  No one gave a thought to the dangers involved in organizing our prayer group, to the possibility of a German or kapo deciding dropping in unexpectedly. Even those who the day before had scoffed at the “crazy Chassidim” seemed excited.

“Who will read the Megillah?” someone asked.

The lot, so to speak, fell on me.  Within moments, volunteers managed to locate some clothing for me since, like all the inmates of the infirmary, I had been assigned nothing more than a blanket with which to cover myself. And so, dressed in a camp uniform, a towel wrapped around my head in place of a yarmulka, I read the words: “and Haman sought to destroy all the Jews.”

When I read of Haman’s downfall, and that “the Jews had light and happiness, joy and honor,” the spark of hope that glimmers in every Jew’s heart ignited into a flaming torch. “Dear L-rd of the Universe!” I know each of us was thinking, “Grant us a wondrous miracle too, as you did for our forefathers in those days. Let us, too, see the end of our enemies!”

When I finished, everyone cheered.  For a brief instant, the dreadful reality of the death camp had been forgotten. Having exerted the rest of my strength on the reading, I sat breathless, but my spirit soared.

When people’s actions are pleasing to G-d, even their enemies are reconciled to them.  The block elder, who usually strutted in with a scowl, smiled as he entered that day, ladling the soup without cursing at anyone. And the ever-present jealousy among us inmates seemed to turn into generosity.  Instead of complaints that someone else had received more potatoes, I heard things like “Let Srulik get a bigger portion of soup today!”

Instead of bemoaning the present, we dreamed of the future, of when the German demon would inherit his due, when this Jewish suffering would end.  And like a river overflowing its banks, thoughts of redemption burst forth from broken hearts.  One mitzvah led to another, to further acts of spiritual heroism. Someone decided to forgo the small piece of bread he had saved from the previous day, and offered it to his comrade. Another made a gift of a piece of potato, and these two “portions”, which only yesterday would have caused ill will, now became the means by which the inmates could fulfill the mitzvah of “sending gifts of food, one to another.”

Those precious “Mishloach Manos” were passed around from one to the other, until they finally landed on my lap. Everyone decided that I should be the one to keep them in the end as compensation for my services.

I thought to myself, “Dear G-d, behold Your people, who in an instant can transform themselves from wild creatures to courageous, caring men and faithful Jews…”

And a verse welled up inside me: “Who is like you, Israel, a singular nation on Earth?”

“Precious Jews!” I said to the others. “Brothers in suffering!  Let us make but one request from our Heavenly Father: Next year in Jerusalem!”

A Call To Arms

The thesis that is the Jewish Nation has an antithesis: Amalek.  And just as the Jewish People is defined by its Torah, so is its polar opposite associated with a particular system of thought and attitude.

Amalek the nation is unknown to us today; the Biblical command to destroy it to avert the mortal threat it poses to all that is good and holy is thus moot.

Amalek the notion, though, is very much present – in the broader world, the Jewish one and perhaps, to a degree, within each of us as well. And its undermining remains an obligation both urgent and clear.

A hint to the attitude defining Amalek lies in the Torah’s words immediately preceding that nation’s first appearance.  In Exodus (17:7), just before the words “And Amalek came,” the Jews wonder “Is G-d in our midst or not?”  The Hebrew word for “not” – “ayin” – literally means “nothing.”  That Amalek’s attack comes on the heels of that word is fitting, because Amalekism stands for precisely that: nothing.  Or, better: Nothing – the conviction that all, in the end, is without meaning or consequence.

In Hebrew, letters have numerical values.  The number-value of the word “Amalek,” Jewish sources note, equals that of “safek,” or “doubt.”  Not “doubt” in the word’s simplest sense, implying some lack of evidence, but rather  doubt as a belief: the philosophical shunning of the very idea of surety – the embrace of cynicism, the championing of meaninglessness.

For there are two diametric ways to approach life, history and the universe.  One approach perceives direction and purpose; the other regards all as the products of randomness – cold, indifferent chaos.

The latter approach is the essence of Amalekism.  It is a worship of chance, reflected in things like the Purim story’s Amalekite villain Haman’s choice to cast lots – putting his trust in chance – in choosing a date to annihilate the PersianKingdom’s Jews.

The religion that is Amalekism is often regarded as a harmless agnosticism.  But it is hardly benign.  Because if nature is but a series of dice-rollings, its pinnacle, the human being, is just another pointless payoff.  Man’s actions do not make – indeed, cannot make – any difference at all.  Yes, he may benefit or harm his fellows or his world, but so what?  There is no ultimate import to either accomplishment

In fact, asserts the chance-worshipper, he is no different from the animals whom he considers, through the lottery of natural selection, his ancestors.  He may be more evolved, but in the end is no less an expression than they of purely random events.

Amalek’s credo is proudly and publicly proclaimed today.  From “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” (PETA), which contends that “meat is murder”; to Princeton University’s Professor Peter Singer, who asserts that “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee”; to books like “Eternal Treblinka,” which makes the loathsome comparison of animals slaughtered for food with (one winces to even repeat it) the victims of the Nazis

And it lurks, more subtly but no less surely, in the contemporary insistence that chance-based evolutionary theory is the only explanation for the diversity of species.

One who sees only random forces as the engine of that diversity may be able to offer an explanation of the human belief in right and wrong – claiming, for instance, that such belief evolved through “natural selection” to confer some biological advantage to humans.   But he cannot justify the belief itself as having any more import than any other utilitarian evolutionary adaptation

And so, faced with the Jewish conviction that ultimate meaning exists, and that the human being is the pinnacle not of blind evolution but of purposeful Creation, Amalek mocks.  Men, he sneers, are no different than the monkeys they so closely resemble, and the actions of both of no ultimate import

Interestingly, our resemblance to apes may figure in the pivotal account of Amalek’s attack on the Jews after the exodus from Egypt.  When Moses lifted his hands, the Torah recounts, the tide of the fight turned in favor of the Jewish People; when he lowered them, the opposite occurred.

“And do the [lifted] arms of Moses wage war?” asks the Talmud.  “Rather,” it explains, “when the Jews lifted their eyes heavenward, they were victorious…”  And so the lifting of Moses’ hands signifies the Jews’ beseeching G-d.

The etymology of the word Amalek is unclear.  But one might consider it a contraction of the Hebrew word “amal” – “labor” – and the letter with a “k” sound: “kuf,” whose letters spell the Hebrew word that means, of all things, “monkey.”

It is intriguing and perhaps significant that among all the earth’s creatures, only humans and primates can lift their arms above their heads.  And little short of astounding that precisely that movement figures so pivotally in the context of a battle between the nation proclaiming that human life has no special meaning – that men are but smooth-skinned apes – and the nation that proclaims human life has unique meaning.

Because, while primates can also lift their arms, the gesture is an empty one; when humans do the same thing, it can be the most potent expression of relating to the Divine.

When Moses lifts his arms, indicating the Jews’ turning to G-d, it can be seen as a declaration that ouramal,” our labor, is not the action of a monkey but the meaningful expression of human beings.

“And his hands were belief” – says the verse there, strangely.  Or not so strangely.  Moses’ hands declared belief in humanity’s unique relationship to G-d.

The Jews thus prevailed in the battle by negating Amalekism – by demonstrating their conviction that G-d exists and that we are beholden to Him.

On Purim, Jews the world over commemorate the crucial, if not final, victory over Amalek that took place in Persia in the time of Mordechai and Esther, by publicly reading the Book of Esther.  As has often been remarked, it is a unique scroll in the Jewish canon, the only one that makes no overt reference to G-d.  Instead, it forces us to seek Him in the account’s “chance” happenings, to perceive Him in seemingly “random” events.

By doing precisely that, our ancestors merited G-d’s protection and emerged victorious.  May our own rejection of the Amalek-idea in our time merit us the same. 

© 2007 AM ECHAD RESOURCES