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.

And your thoughts...?