Why give?

If we look in the Torah at verses that describe our obligations to give or loan to others, it is common for them to conclude with “I am your G-d”. For example:

וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תְעוֹלֵל, וּפֶרֶט כַּרְמְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט; לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם; אֲנִי ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם.

Do not totally glean your vineyard, and the fallen [fruit] from your vineyard do not gather up, they should be left for the poor and the stranger, I am Hashem your G-d. (19:10)

Similarly the pasuq whose conclusion Rabbi Aqiva considers the Torah’s most fundamental rule

לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ, אֲנִי ה

Do not take revenge and to not bear a grudge to the people of your nation, and you shall love your friend as yourself, I am Hashem. (v. 18)

and

מִפְּנֵי שֵׂיבָה תָּקוּם, וְהָדַרְתָּ פְּנֵי זָקֵן; וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, אֲנִי ה.

Rise before the elderly and honor the face of an old man, and you shall feel awe/fear from your G-d, I am Hashem. (v. 32)

and

כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ, כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: אֲנִי, ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם.

Like a native from among you shall be the stranger who lives among you and you shall love him like yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am Hashem your G-d. (v. 34)

and

וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱ-לֹהֶיךָ:  כִּי אֲנִי ה, אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם

Do not cheat one another, and you should have awe/fear of your G-d, for I am Hashem your G-d. (25:17)

A naive read might be that we are being asked to give to others specifically because Hashem is commanding us to. However, the primary value, Rabbi Aqiva tells us, is “ve’havta lerei’akha kamokha – loving our neighbor as yourself.” And the Alter of Slabodka taught from this pasuq that just as we love ourselves naturally, not because it’s a mitzvah, so to our love and its expression to others should not be from an attitude of “because G-d said so”. As I wrote in the past, Rav Wolbe [Alei Shur vol II pg 152] quotes the Alter of Slabodka’s treatment of this question:

“Ve’ahavta lereiakha komakha — and you shall love your peers like yourself.” That you should love your peer the way you love yourself. You do not love yourself because it is a mitzvah, rather, a plain love. And that is how you should love your peer.

To which Rav Wolbe notes, “This approach is entirely alien to frumkeit.” The frum person is the one who makes sure to have Shabbos guests each week, but whose guests end up feeling much like his tefillin — an object with which he did a mitzvah. A person acting out of frumkeit doesn’t love to love, he loves in order to be a holier person. And ironically, he thereby fails — because he never develops that Image of the Holy One he was created to become. The person who acts from self-interest, even from the interest of ascending closer to G-d, will not reach Him.

The first word in the commandment to loan to another Jew in need without interest is picked up by numerous commentators:

אִם כֶּסֶף תַּלְוֶה אֶת עַמִּי, אֶת הֶעָנִי עִמָּךְ, לֹא תִהְיֶה לוֹ כְּנֹשֶׁה, לֹא תְשִׂימוּן עָלָיו נֶשֶׁךְ.

If you lend money with My nation, with the poor who are with you, do not act like a creditor to him, do not place interest upon him. (Shemos 22:24)

Why the “im — if”? We know from Devarim 15:8 that lending is obligatory, so why is it phrased as though it’s conditional. Rashi, following the Mekhilta, simply says that “im” here means “when”, not “if”. The Ibn Ezra says that lending is conditional, because only few people can afford to perform this mitzvah.

But the Maharal takes an approach which is likely one of the Alter’s sources. In Gur Aryeh, his commentary on the Rashi ad loc, he writes:

For if a person would fulfill these dictates because he is obligated to fulfill the decrees of the King, this would not be the desire of God, for God wants man to fulfill the commandment out of his own desire to do so …

Indeed, if a person would do these three acts out of a sense of being commanded to do so by the King, unwillingly, this would not be something of which God could be proud….

If someone would loan money because he is commanded to do so, it would not be a mitzva, as the mitzva of providing loans must be performed out of the desire of a good heart, as it is written (Devarim 15:10), “and let your heart not feel bad.”

Further, the terms used for others in these mitzvos emphasize our unity. Throughout Vayiqra 25, the recipient is “akhikha – your brother”.

כִּי-יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ, וּמָכַר מֵאֲחֻזָּתוֹ

If your brother declines in wealth and sold some of his property … (v. 25)

The pasuq that describes the specific mitzvah of tzedaqah:

וְכִי-יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ, וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ

If your brother declines in wealth and his means [lit: hand] fail with you … (v. 35).

And:

And if your brother who dwells with you grows poor and is sold … (v. 39)

And if a sojourner or stranger grows wealthy with you and your brother who dwells with him grows poor and sells himself to the stranger … (v. 47)

So then how to we understand our initiial observation, the frequenecy with which Hashem concludes these mitzvos with the words “I am Hashem”?

Rav Shim’on Shkop, in his introduction to Shaarei Yosher, explains the mitzvah of tzedaqah as follows (available in full here, and these sections with more of my commentary here and here):

Similarly it is appropriate to think about all the gifts of heaven “from the dew of the heavens and the fat of the land” (Bereishis 27:38) that they are given to the Jewish people as a whole. Their allotment to individuals is only in their role as caretakers until they divide it to those who need it, to each according to what is worthy for him, and to take for himself what is worthy for himself.
וכן ראוי להתבונן על כל מתנות שמים מטל שמים ומשמני הארץ שהם נתונים לכלל ישראל כולו, והתחלקותם להיחידים הוא רק בתור גזברות, על מנת שיחלקם לנצרכים, לכל אחד כחלק הראוי לו, וליטול לעצמו כפי חלקו הראוי לו.
With this idea one can understand how charity has the effect of enriching the one who performs it, as the sages say on the verse “‘aseir ta’aseir – you shall surely tithe’ – tithe, so that you shall become rich – shetis’asheir” . Someone who is appointed over a small part of the national treasury who does a good job guarding at his appointment as appropriate will be next appointed to oversee a sum greater than that, if he is not promoted in some other way. If they find a flaw in his guard duty, no fine qualities to be found in him will help, and they will demote him to a smaller task. Similarly in the treasuries of heaven which are given to man. If he tithes appropriately, he satisfies his job of disbursement as he is supposed to conduct himself according to the Torah, giving to each as is appropriate according to the teachings of the Torah, then he will become wealthy and be appointed to disburse a greater treasure. And so on, upward and upward so that he can fulfill his lofty desire to do good for the masses through his stewardship of the treasury. In this way a man of reliable spirit does the will of his Maker.
ועל פי דעה זו יובן סגולת הצדקה שמעשרת את בעליה, כמו שדרשו חז״ל על הכתוב “‘עשר תעשר’ – עשר בשביל שתתעשר” (תענית דף ט.), שכמו שהממונה על אוצרות הממשלה באוצר קטן, אם ישמור תפקידו כראוי אז יתמנה להיות גזבר על אוצר גדול מזה, אף אם לא יצטיין במעלות אחרות, ולהיפך, אם יתגלה חסרון במשמרתו, לא יועילו לו כל מעלות שימצאו בו, ויורידוהו למשרה קטנה מזה, כל כך באוצרות שמים הנתנים לאדם, אם מעשר כראוי ממלא תפקיד הגזברות שלו כראוי ליטול לעצמו כפי דרכי התורה, ומחלק למי שראוי כל כך על פי הוראת התורה, אז יתעשר ויתמנה לגזברות על אוצר גדול מזה וכן הלאה למעלה למעלה, למען יתקיים רצון העליון בהטבת הכלל על ידי שמירת האוצר, ובזה איש נאמן רוח עושה רצון קונו יתברך.

We can pick out two aspects to the motivation Rav Shimon for tzedaqah. First, all wealth is from Hashem, and therefore we should be disbursing it according to His Will. Which means sharing with those who don’t have. This is what Hashem reminds us by reiterating that He is our G-d.

Second, all of us are parts of a whole. There is an inherent calling to share with ones bretheren. As the Rambam often phrases a duty between two people in his Seifer haMitzvos, “one part should do for another part”. A person is happiest when his right hand shares with the left. Similarly, the Jewish People, or humanity as a whole.

So the “ani Hashem” is not “because I, the Creator, commanded it”. Rather, “because I, Hashem, provide for all, and unify all under a common mission. And therefore what I give you is part of My giving your brother as well. And your sharing with him is part of what I give to you.”

Esther’s Modesty – Adar’s Joy (Anavah and Anvanus)

Yoshiahu’s Downfall

The only qinah, elegy, that we recite on Tish’ah beAv that dates back to the days of Tanakh (other than the Book of Eichah itself) is Yirmiyahu’s qinah for King Yoshiahu. Yoshiahu was raised by one of the more idolatrous of our kings, Menasheh. Menasheh managed to so suppress Torah that Yoshiahu was taken by the scroll he found in the Beis HaMiqdash. Yoshiahu lead a rather successful religious revival. The gemara describes the generation as one that even in the children knew greater details of tum’ah and taharah than did the rabbis of the Talmud. Successful, but imperfect. There were still homes where idols were worshipped. They would be hidden, for example (an example referenced in the qinah), they would paint an image on the backs of their doors, so that if anyone would inspect the home, it would be hidden between the door and the wall. The style was to have a split door, 1/2 opens on each side. Therefore, they could even honestly say, whenever the doors were open and therefore the image split, that there was no idolatry in their home.

Yoshiahu was unaware of this. He thought the revival was complete. When Par’oh Necho wanted to lead an army through Israel on the way to a war, Yoshiahu wanted to rely on Hashem’s promise, “a sword will not enter your land.” Yirmiyahu warned him, that no, we didn’t merit that level of protection. Yoshiahu didn’t listen to him. Egypt still needed to travel, so since they were refused safe passage, they attacked. Yoshiahu was fatally wounded, and confessed his error to Yirmiyahu in his final breath.

Why? What blinded such a righteous king, a man Rav Hillel thought merited to be the messiah, to the message of the navi?

Interestingly, in the qinah, Yirmiyahu refers to the wicked of the generation as “leitzanim”, ridiculers. Not as wicked, sinners or idolaters. Again, why?

Leitzanus, ridicule, is a lack of yir’ah. It’s an inability to accept the significance of the truly important, of dealing with the feelings of awe and fear that that engenders. Leitzanus is therefore a symptom of ga’avah, egotism. When someone has an over estimation of his own importance, he has no room to acknowledge anything else as perhaps being more important, he can’t accept the insecurity fear engenders. A natural response would therefore be leitzanus, belittling it.

Ga’avah also demotivates one to improve himself. I’m so good, my flaws are minor ones. I am reluctant to suggest this, but perhaps Yoshiahu, living in a culture that overly promoted in egotism, was tinged with some of that flaw himself. Therefore, he was incapable of believing that his religious reawakening was imperfect.

Shaul’s Downfall

In the haftorah for parashas Zachor, King Sha’ul fails in his duty to kill Amaleiq. He does not destroy all of their livestock, and leaves the battle before killing the Amaleiqi king, Agag. The navi Shemu’el takes Sha’ul to task for this shortcoming. “And Shemu’el said, ‘Although you are little in your own sight, aren’t you the head of the tribes of Yisra’el? And Hashem anointed you king over Israel.’” (Shemu’el I 15:17) Sha’ul eventually admits his guilt. “And Sha’ul said to Shemu’el, ‘I have sinned; for I have violated Hashem’s commandment and thy words; because I feared the people and listened to their voice.” (v. 24) Sha’ul, rather than acting like a king and teaching the people to follow Hashem’s will, allowed himself to be lead by his subjects. What does Shemu’el identify as Sha’ul’s failing? Sha’ul didn’t realize his own self-worth, and therefore does not live up to his potential and role in life.

Esther’s Success

In the story of Purim, Esther faces the same dilemma. Mordechai calls upon her to use her position as queen to save the Jewish people. She balks, and Mordechai counter-argues. “For if you are absolutely silent at this time, then will relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish; and who knows — im la’eis kazos higa’at lemalkhus, perhaps it was just for a moment as this you came to royalty?” (Esther 4:14)

There is a second link between Esther’s anavah and redemption in her repeating something in Mordechai’s name rather than get personal credit:

Torah is greater than the priesthood or sovereignty, for sovereignty is acquired with thirty virtues, the priesthood with twenty-four, and Torah is acquired with forty-eight qualities. These are: … and (#48) saying something in the name of its speaker. Thus we have learned: One who says something in the name of its speaker brings ge’ulah to the world, as is stated (Esther 2:22), “And Esther told the king in the name of Mordechai.”

- Beraisa, Avos 6:6

Unlike her ancestor, Sha’ul, or Yoshiahu, Esther rises to her calling. (Her first cousin, Mordechai, is described as a descendent of Kish, which the midrash presumes to be the same Kish as Sha’ul’s father.) What did Esther have that Sha’ul lacked?

If not for the Anvanus of Zechariah ben Avqulos…

To explain that, I would like to introduce one more story. In the progression of events that lead to the downfall of the second Beis haMiqdash, Nero Caesar presented a healthy calf to offer to the Beis haMiqdash as a test of their loyalty, but Bar Qamtza made some kind of blemish in it that invalidated it as an offering. The Rabbis wanted to offer it anyway, since the risk to life outweighs the halakhah. Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos objected, saying that people would think that it means that blemished animals may be offered. Then they wanted to kill Bar Qamtza, so that he could not report back to the Romans. Again, Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos objected, as he thought it would teach people that the punishment for damaging an offering was death. Nero heard that his offering was refused, was convinced that the Jews were in rebellion, and after checking some portents, decided to attack. The gemara interrupts the story to give us Rabban Gamliel’s assessment, “Because of the anvanus of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos our Temple was destroyed, our sanctuary burnt, and we were exiled from the land.”

There is a fundamental difference between anvanus and anavah, the laudable trait of modesty. Anavah is an awareness of our true worth and potential. It’s modesty that comes from knowing how much more one is capable of accomplishing. Anvanus, on the other hand, is crippling. It’s a lack of self-esteem, so that one does not rise to the challenge. Sha’ul was “little in [his] own sight,” he shared Rav Zechariah ben Avqulus’s anvanus and failed to accomplish the whole mission of his reign.

Pesachiah is Mordechai

The Mishnah (Sheqalim 5:1) lists those appointed for special duties in the Beis haMiqdash, naming the appointees. (The Yerushalmi opens with a dispute as to whether these were the appointees at the time this mishnah was first composed, or exemplary holders of each job.) Among them:

 …פתחיה על הקינין. “פתחיה” זהו מרדכי. ולמה נקרא שמו “פתחיה”? שהיה פותח דברים, ודורשן, ויודע בשבעים לשון.

Pesachiah [was the appointee] over the birds [sold to those who needed tahor birds for their offering].

“Pesachiah” is Mordechai. And why was his name called “Pesachiah”? Because he opened [pasach] words [of Torah], expounded upon them, and knew [all] seventy languages.

The Yerushalmi (21b in the vilna ed.) elaborates:

Come and see how great the potential of this person is, that he could open words [of Torah] and expound upon them!

The Yerushalmi continues by discussing the mishnah’s praise that he spoke 70 languages, which, while remarkable, was far from unique – every Sanhedrin had to have such people. (And all members had to be able to understand, if not speak them.)

The gemara gives three examples of women who came to procure birds, explained why they were bringing sacrifices, and were misunderstood by all but Mordechai / Pesachiah. One said they were for “עינתי”, which they thought meant “my wellspring”, a reference to zivah bleeding (zivah, unlike regular niddah, requires a bird-offering afterward), and Mordechai realized she meant “my eye” — she wanted to thank G-d after being healed from an eye condition. Another said “ימתי”, which they similarly understood as “my sea”, and Mordechai explained she too was thankful, that she was saved from the sea. The third said “זיבתי”, which certainly sounds like “my zivah”, and Mordechai again realized she was actually saying “ze’evasi” — that she was saved from a wolf.

What was unique about Mordechai was not just the technical ability to speak many languages. It was the human ability to understand others. Mordechai realized that women would not go to the Beis haMiqdash and speak so crassly as it seemed, in public no less. He understood his listener.

Perhaps this skill of Mordechai’s is also an instance of modesty leading to redemption. There linguistic similarity between anavah (modesty) and la’anos (to answer). It is all too easy to spend the time someone is speaking to me planning my “brilliant” reply. An anav listens, and truly answers. Mordechai heard the person, not just their words.

*The Chida (Mar′is ha′Ayin Sheqalim ch. 41) provides an interesting gematria to buttress this idea. Each letter in the name Pesachyah (פתחיה), relates to the corresponding letter in the name Mordechai (מרדכי). Each of the first three letters is double in value to that in Mordechai:

פ 80 = 2 x   40מ
ת400 = 2 x 200ר
ח   8 = 2 x    4ד

(Each of the last two is half the value:

י10 x 2 = 20כ
ה 5 x 2 = 10י

(The root verb of the name is doubled (פתח to מרד) because Mordechai expanded himself by opening the words of Torah in a way the people were ready to receive. This required the humility and readiness to really listen implied in the last two letters – the humility that took the “כי”, the “because” behind life’s events, and revealed a name of G-d – “י־ה”.)

Defense Mechanisms

This lack of self-esteem is actually very related to ga’avah (egotism). Ga’avah is a defense mechanism for someone who feels a constant need to prove to himself and the world that he really does have value. It’s the insecure who have a need lie to themselves, magnifying their accomplishments, minimizing their imperfections. The need to constantly prove one’s importance would also explain the divisiveness and lack of tolerance of the flaws and errors of others by the masses of his generation.

Perhaps, therefore, one can suggest a common cause for the pathologies given in the elegy for Yoshiahu. Yoshiahu was one of a generation that was digging itself out of the depths. If they never shook off that self-image, then perhaps they too shared the “modesty of Rav Zecharia ben Avqulus”. This in turn led to ga’avah which fueled an inability to change on the part of those who hid their icons by ridiculing the efforts to spread change, as well as the inability of Yoshiahu to admit he might not have been successful. Leitzanus and ga’avah are both mechanisms for dealing with unhealthy anvanus.

Sha’ul also falls to ga’avah. Like many anvanim sought his validation from others, and so Sha’ul bowed to the will of the people, to prove to them he is worthy. Anvanus does not lead to anavah, in fact, his quest for approval he is lead to ga’avah, bragging.

Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos tried to escape his anvanah through yet another tactic, the game of “Yes, But”. If the situation is unsolvable, then one can’t be blamed for failing. In this “game”, one person proposes solutions “Why don’t we…”, to which the anvan responds, “Yes, but…” “Why don’t we offer the sacrifice even though it’s blemished, since risk to life overrides the prohibition?” “Yes, but then people will think it’s permissible in all circumstances.” “Why don’t we kill Bar Qamtza, and save the Jewish People?” “Yes, but then people would think it is permissible in all circumstances.” Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulus is so sure he is incapable of solving the problem, the problem grows to insolvable size.

Rav Zechariah ben Avqulus’s actions lead to Tish’ah be’Av. “Mishenichnas Av mema’atim besimchah — when the month of Av enters, we reduce in joy.” Anvanus leads to a diminution of joy.

Healthy Anvanus

We can also find positive examples of human anvanus. “And so, when Hashem’s aron was brought to the city of David, Michal bas Sha’ul looked out the window and saw king David leaping and dancing before Hashem; and she was ashamed of him in her heart.”

To Michal’s eye, it was not fitting for the king to leap and dance in public. David, on the other hand, didn’t overestimate his worth. Rather than “Who am I to do…?” he said “Who am I that I should not?”!

It is noteworthy that Michal is described as “Sha’ul’s daughter” when she mis-assesses the value of his actions. She thought she learned from her father’s error that anvanus is a mistake. But it isn’t always.

Yehoshua’ distinguished himself from among Moshe’s students by being the one to arrange the seating for the classes. (Bamidbar Rabba 21:14) He did not decide that since he was the next to lead, and the leader of our army, that such things were beneath him.

Rabbi Yochanan said: Everywhere that you find Hashem’s Gevurah [Might], you find His Anvanus. This is written in the Torah, repeated in the Navi, and a third time in Kesuvim.

It is written in the Torah, “For Hashem your G-d is G-d over all forces [E-lokei haElokim]” and it says right after it, “… Who executes the justice of orphans and widows.” (Devarim 10:17-18)

It is repeated in the Navi: “So says the High and Uplifted, Dwelling Eternally and Holy One” and it says right after it “…Who dwells with the afflicted and those of depressed spirit.” (Yeshaiah 57:15)

It is a third time in Kesuvim, as it says “Praise the One who rides on the heavens, Whose name is ‘Kah’” and it says right after it “… the Father of orphans and the Judge for widows”. (Tehillim 68:5)

I defined anavah as awareness of everyone one could be but aren’t. That is a “good thing”, in that it motivates person to constantly strive to improve. In contrast to the anvan, who thinks they are incapable and therefore refuse to act. A person can be an anav or an anvan. But neither make sense when speaking of Hashem. He is neither less than His Potential nor does Hashem underestimate His Worth. We are not speaking of a literal self-image, nor a motivator.

When we speak of Hashem’s Anvanus as opposed to His Gevurah, we can only be describing how His actions appear to us. Anvanus therefore means His willingness to do things even when it may not befit appearances of Honor, to perform acts of kindness even when the kindness does not fit our mental image of honor and authority. Gevurah is that authority, when power leads to away from activities of narrower scope.

When a person thinks of Might, he thinks of someone who moves amongst kings, not someone who helps the downtrodden, the orphan, the widow, the depressed. This kind of anvanus, being willing to help rather than think it beneath our station, is a Divine example we are to emulate. As a necessary prerequisite for chessed (lovingkindness) to those needier than us, it is presented in the gemara a balance to the strict towing-the-line of gevurah.

Anavah, the Path to Happiness

Anvanus therefore requires a fine line. Too much, and one believes every worthy act is above their abilities, too little, and they are all beneath his station. Anavah, an awareness of both one’s abilities and of how much more one can tap them, gives us a means to find that balance.

Purim, on the other hand, arose from Esther’s true, healthy, anavah. Esther started down the road of “Yes But”, but Mordechai’s words shocked her into the realization that “le’eis hazos higa’at lamalkhus”, that her royal station demanded action from her at this time. She did not rest on her laurels, but was motivated by knowing how much more she was capable of accomplishing. Anavah culminates in the victory of Purim. “Mishenichnas Adar marbim besimchah — when the month of Adar enters, we increase in joy.”

For the Jews, There Was Light

לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשֹׂן וִיקָר.

For the Jews, there was light, happiness, joy and preciousness.

קִיְּמוּ וקבל [וְקִבְּלוּ] הַיְּהוּדִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְעַל זַרְעָם וְעַל כָּל הַנִּלְוִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְלֹא יַעֲבוֹר לִהְיוֹת עֹשִׂים אֵת שְׁנֵי הַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה כִּכְתָבָם וְכִזְמַנָּם בְּכָל שָׁנָה וְשָׁנָה.

The Jews established and accepted upon themselves, on their descendents, and on all those who join them, so that it would not fail, to make these two days as they were written and according to their times every year.

Purim as Part of the Jewish Year

The three upcoming holidays — Purim, Pesach and Shavuos — have each been compared to holidays in Tishrei.

The Gemara notes that Yom Kippur, or, as the Torah calls it, Yom haKippurim, could be read as “The day which is like Purim”. It is kind of hard to see how the day where one is required to “suppress your nefesh” can be compared to the day where “one is obligated to drink until one can not distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai”. Yet, the Gemara invites such a comparison .

Similarly, many of the laws of matzah and sukkah are derived by comparing Sukkos and Pesach. The grounds for this is the hermeneutical rule of “gezeira shava“, which is usually a comparison of two things described in the Torah by similar terminology. In this case it is the fact that both are on the 15th of their respective months that invites the comparison.

Last, the gemara consistently refers to Shavuos as Atzeres, whereas Shmini Atzeres is qualified as Atzeres HaChag, the Atzeres of Succos.

We can therefor look at the fall yamim tovim, and how they are structured, and learn something about their spring parallels.

Yom Kippur and Shmini Atzeres share a theme. On Yom Kippur we are judged to determine our fate for the next year. On Shmini Atzeres, the rain, and by extension our finances, are decided. (See Taanis 2b, where the “key to rain” is given as the source of all fiscal blessing.) One could think of Shmini Atzeres as a reprisal of the theme introduced by Yom Kippur. Sandwiched between them is Succos, presenting the mirror image of the same idea. Instead of focusing on earning sustenance, on Succos we celebrate those things Hashem already gave us.

By parallel, we see how Pesach and Shavuos present opposite side of the same idea. On Shavuos we focus on assuming the responsibility of getting and keeping the Torah. On Pesach, we celebrate the special providence Hashem gives us as Jews.

Purim and Accepting the Torah

This would mean that to find the theme to Purim, we should look at how it would fit into the same pattern, how it shares the theme of Shavuos.

“And they [Bnei Yisrael] stood under the mountain [Sinai]” (Shemos 19) — R. Avdimi bar Chama bar Chisa said, “This teaches that Hakadosh Baruch Hu flipped the mountain [Sinai] over them [Bnei Yisrael], like a barrel, and said, ‘If you accept the Torah, good, and if not, there will be your graves.’” R. Acha bar Yaakov said, “This provides a major complaint against the Torah.” Rava said, “Even so, the [whole] generation accepted it in the days of Achashveiros. For it says (Esther 9), “the Jews fulfilled and accepted”, they fulfilled that which they had already accepted.
Shabbos 88b

What the Jews accepted by force in the desert, was finally accepted willingly. Just as Yom Kippur is the complete judgment, and Shmini Atzeres is only a part, Purim represents the completion of what was started at Shavuos.

There are also textual parallels between the two acceptances of the Torah. At Har Sinai, we said “na’aseh venishmah — we will do, and we will listen.” Counterintuitively, we’re placing obedience to the mitzvos before listening to what they are. Similarly, “qiymu beqibelu haYhudim – the Jews fulfilled and accepted”, also placing the fulfillment of the mitzvah before accepting it. Both phrasings reflect the idea that Torah is “heard” by being performed. We internalize Hashem’s Will more by doing the mitzvah than by studying its laws in the abstract.

Second, at Har Sinai, we all stood as one. “וַיִּחַן שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל, נֶגֶד הָהָר — and Israel camped there, opposite the mountain.” (Shemos 19:2) Chazal note there that “vayichan — camped” is written there in the singular, and comment “like one person, with one heart.” In our verse in Esther too, “veqiblu — accepted” is read in the plural, but is actually written in the megillah in the singular — “veqibeil“!

Purim and Esther

“Where is Esther in the Torah? (Devarim 31) ‘I will hide in hiding (hasteir astir) My Face’.” (Chullin 139b).

This question is particularly valid since when Esther is introduced in the megillah (2:7) we are told her real name is Haddasah (cf Tr. Megillah 13a). Even further, Esther is the name of a pagan goddess. In all likelihood, like many American Jews today, Esther had two names, a religious name of Haddasah, and a legal name of Esther. This is consistent with the fact that we brought back with us from the same exile month names that are clearly pagan in origin. So why is does the megillah choose the name Esther?

A major theme of Purim is the fact that Hashem’s role is hidden, there are no overt miracles, just a steady string of what looks like fortuitous coincidences. Hashem is never named in the megillah. The Yom Tov is named after the lots Haman threw to choose a day, and ended up choosing a date as far ahead in the year as possible.

The book and the queen are called Esther because it brings to mind a pun, and recalls the promise that Hashem will never abandon us as a punishment, but merely hide.

But what about Purim and its relationship to Shavuos? Didn’t we say that the primary theme should be the acceptance of Torah that started at Shavuos?

Torah in a Mundane World

Purim happened at a critical time in Jewish history. The last people who remembered the miracles of the first Beis haMiqdash were already old and dying. Until Moshiach, we won’t see fire descend from the sky to consume the karbanos, the scarlet wool turn white on Yom Kippur, the Urim veTumim, light up prophetically. The last of the prophets (until the return of Eliyahu) were aged. Tzoraas no longer punished those who spoke lashon hara. But until then, all these miracles occured. And as in seifer Shofetim, the cycle of military threat followed by teshuvah followed by a shofeit and military success followed by contentment followed by sin which in turn motivates Hashem to provide the next military threat. This knowledge that acting badly will definitely get punished is — or at least should have been — compelling.

There is a famous gemara:

“And they [Bnei Yisrael] stood under the mountain [Sinai]” (Shemos 19) — R. Avdimi bar Chama bar Chisda said, “This teaches that HaQadosh Baruch Hu flipped the mountain [Sinai] over them [Bnei Yisrael], like a barrel, and said, ‘If you accept the Torah, good, and if not, there will be your graves.’”

R. Acha bar Yaakov said, “This provides a major complaint against the Torah.” Rava said, “Even so, the [whole] generation accepted it in the days of Achashveiros. For it says (Esther 9), “the Jews fulfilled and accepted”, they fulfilled that which they had already accepted.

Shabbos 88b

The Meshech Chokhmah (introduction to Shemos) explains that what the gemara means is that while the threat of punishment for sinning was tangible it was as if the mountain was held over their heads. And even so, the moment they came out from under the mountain, when they are bid to “return to your tents” (Devarim 5:27), they returned to the hum-drum world and that feeling that observance is self-evidence subsided. (In the Meshekh Chokhmah’s thought, free-willed observance is the ultimate purpose of existence. He therefore explains this gemara with a strong interest in explaining that free-will was not compromised.)

Then came Purim, with the appearance of happenstance, of Hester Panim, the Hidden Face. The Jewish people were taught a new way to relate to G-d. And the reaction — “the Jews fulfilled and accepted”. A new level of Torah observance was reached, one of trust and faith instead of miracle and prophecy.

Being Jewish

The exile to Bavel after the first Beis Hamiqdash was attributed to many things; one of the less intuitive (and therefore more discussed) reasons given was that they didn’t make a berakhah before learning Torah. What was so terrible? This period had problems with idolatry, with oppression of the poor and weak, and the destruction is being blamed on people who were even learning Torah?! In one way this makes sense. If even the righteous weren’t up to standard, who would the rest of the generation look up to? Who would motivate their change? But only up to a point; this lack of berakhah still doesn’t seem like a destruction-worthy flaw, even in the leadership.

The megillah is the first book to refer to us as Yehudim, Yidden, Jews. Even Mordechai, an “ish yemini“, from the tribe of Binyamin, is called a Yehudi. This new usage of the word was because the Jewish people now included only survivors of the Kingdom of Yehudah (Judea). The name “Yehudah” is itself significant. It comes from Leah’s words upon naming her son, “This time I will thank — odeh — Hashem.” It is no coincidence that shaped history to give us this name. We are a people of thanking. The first words out of our lips every morning are “Modeh ani lefanekha” thanking Hashem for allowing us to wake up. Rav Saadia Gaon (Emunos veDei’os 3:1) and the Chovos haLvavos (sec 2, intro.) hold that the driving force behind mitzvos is the recognition of the good Hashem bestows upon us.

“When Adar enters, we increase our simchah.” What is “simchah“?

Rav Dovid Lifshitz would have us hang a banner in the beis medrash that followed that quote with two more. “Ein simchah elah Torah — there is no [true] simchah except that of Torah.” “Vekhol hamarbeh harei zeh meshubach — and whoever does more, he is praiseworthy.”

There are three stories (Sanhedrin 101a) in which Rabbi Aqiva seems to laugh at an inappropriate time. First, when he, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya and Rabbi Yehoshua were walking on the road, and they heard the revelry and idolatry of the Roman army loud enough to be heard from a distance from 120 mil. They mourned — Jerusalem is in tatters, and the Romans thrive? And Rabbi Aqiva laughed — if this is the good Hashem gives the idolater, how much more awaits the righteous! Second, when they saw a fox leaving the place of the Holy of Holies, the other rabbis cried — isn’t this the place about which the Torah says “and the stranger who enters shall die” and foxes play there? And Rabbi Aqiva laughed — this is the fulfillment of the prophecy, which means that the prophecies of redemption shall too come to pass. When Rabbi Eliezer became ill, they went to visit him. The other rabbis were pained — we see a veritable Torah scroll in agony, can we not share it? And Rabbi Aqiva laughed — now I see that my rebbe is receiving his punishment in this world, and his reward still awaits him in the World-to-Come.R’ Saadia Gaon observed that laughter is the reaction people have to a sudden realization of an underlying truth. And so, when R’ Akiva suddenly saw the deeper truth, he laughed. R’ Saadia adds that “simchah” is the kind of happiness associated with laughter.”When Adar enters, we increase our simchah.” Purim is the story of G-d working behind the scenes, through natural forces, to redeem the Jews. That’s the time when one feels simchah, insight into the deeper truth.

And that’s the time one feels hoda’ah, thankfulness. It’s only through that inner truth that one sees the greatness in G-d allowing us to wake up, rather than taking it for granted. If you don’t even think about the marvel of having air to breate, you can’t thank G-d for giving us air! That’s why it’s at Purim that we’re first called “Yehudim“.

Seeing the Light

Toward the end of the exile to Bavel we have the story of Purim. At this point, Megillas Esther tells us “laYhudim haysa orah visimchah visason viykar — for the Jews there was light, happiness, joy and preciousness.” Rabbi Yehudah (Megillah 13b) explains that orah (light) refers to Torah, simchah (happiness) is Yom Tov, sason (joy) is beris milah, and yeqar (preciousness) is tefillin.

(Without the other four terms to provide contrast and specificity to the words “Torah” and “simchah”, they take on broader meaaning. Torah would include holidays, milah and tefillin — were we not given the Torah we wouldn’t have had any of them. And simchah would mean positive attitude in general, including light, joy and preciousness. “There is no simchah but Torah” is speaking in that broader sense.)

So why didn’t the megillah simply say “for the Jews there were Torah, holidays, milah and tefillin. Why the code words?

In the first beis hamiqdash we had Torah, but it was not or to us. This is why the berakhah was not made. We observed the laws of Yom Tov, but found no simcha in it. We kept milah and wore tefillin, but with no joy or sense of preciousness. This basic misdirection, that halakhah was fulfilled as a duty, not a love, was what made the leadership unable to direct the masses.

Rav Levi Yitzchaq, the Barditshiver Rebbe, writes in Qedushas Levi that this change even impacted how the Torah was written. It seems that the gemara’s conclusion (Sanhedrin 21a-22b) is that until Ezra’s day, the holy script was not in mass use among Jews. It was used in the first luchos, but not the second. (Aside from the script also being a reward to Ashur, the forefather of Assyria, for not participating in the Tower of Bavel, and thus is the Assyrian script.) In this generation, Torah was restored to Ashuris script. It was with the generation that saw G-d’s Presence in the mundane that was ready to see Hashem’s Word even in the limitations of specific shapes.

With Purim, with the simcha of seeing the deeper truth rather than the explicit reward-and-punishment of the First Temple era, Torah took on a deeper life. We experienced the message of the berakhah, “Who chose us from among the nations and gave us His Torah” thereby correcting the flaw that lead to the exile, and started the process of redemption. With the opening berakhah of commitment, Torah provides light, gratitude and happiness.

LaYhudim haysa orah visimchah visason viykar, kein tihyeh lanu” — so may it be for us!

לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשֹׂן וִיקָר.