LOTS AND LOTS
Rabbi David Walk
This year's calendar makes celebrating Purim a bit easier for those of us who continue to heed Esther's plea that we should fast for the welfare of the Jewish nation. The custom developed to reenact that fast on the day before Purim. The problem is that this means that we read the Megillah while pining for a bite to eat. This year, however, because the eve of Purim is Shabbat, we move the Fast of Esther back to the previous Thursday. Yayyy! This also means that the Shabbat dedicated to the mitzvah of remembering to eradicate our national nemesis, Amalek, is immediately connected to Purim. So, therefore it's a good year to better analyze the role of Haman, that descendant of Amalek, in the Purim saga.
In the third chapter of tractate Megillah there's a mishneh which asks the following question: How much of the scroll of Esther must be read to fulfill the obligation of hearing the Megillah? In the mishneh there are three answers. First there is the obvious (and boring) option that we must read it all. Sadly for those of us with ADD, that's the way we go. Next it is suggested that we must hear the text from the introduction of Mordechai, who with his niece Esther, saves the day. And then Rabbi Yossi claims that all we have to hear of the book is from the entrance of Haman. Rebbe Yossi is teaching us that the major concept behind the celebration of Purim is to understand the nature of our enemies. According to this approach, the motto of Purim should be Know Thy Enemy. And that's our mission this year.
To better understand the role of Haman, I'm going to give a Midrashic explanation of the character of Mordechai. When Mordechai is introduced it says that there was a Jewish man (Ish Yehudi) in Shushan named Mordechai. This is significant because it is the first time the term Jew is used in Biblical literature to describe a member of our nation. Before this our coreligionists are referred to as Children of Israel. But the Midrash says the word Yehudi (Jew) should be read yechidi or unique. The greatness of Mordechai was his uniqueness. Mordechai and indeed the Jewish nation is sui generis. World conquering empires like Persia prefer to homogenize the world. We don't blend in. So, the plea of Haman found welcoming ears. And what was the centerpiece of Haman's pitch for Jewish destruction? There is one nation in this world spanning Persian Empire whose religion is unlike that of any other people (Esther 3:4). Haman attacked us on the very point which is our strength and our power. We are different.
These different Jews are spread and dispersed throughout the Empire. They are easy to destroy because they are separate from us and separated from each other. This appeal tragically found enthusiastic support from the king on high down to the man on the street on the bottom. This form of demagoguery has transplanted so easily from Egypt to Persia through the Middle Ages all the way to Nazi Germany. We have to understand this method of Pharoah, Haman, Torquemada, Hitler, Amalek, because it doesn't go away.
But there's more to the comparison of Haman to Mordechai. The S'fat Emet in 1871 asked a very simple question. The Megillah teaches us that we are to call this holiday Purim because of the pur or lot which was drawn by Haman to determine the date for the destruction of the Jewish people. Since this is the name of the holiday it must describe an essential element of the celebration. But Haman drew only one lot, so why is the name Purim in the plural. Where were the other lots? The Gerer Rebbe gives a revealing answer.
What was that other drawing? When Haman announced the fate of the Jews by means of the letters distributed throughout the empire, Mordechai knew exactly what to do. He went to Esther. Even though Esther initially hesitated, when she accepted her mission, she acted decisively. She asked everyone to fast with her and for her, over a three day period. This accomplished two purposes. First it destroyed one of Haman's claims against us, that were not united in our resolve to remain Jewish and alive. However, according to the Sfat Emet it raised another even more significant issue. The prayers and cries to God during these days of distress were the second lot. This conclusion is supported by the poem recited after the reading of the Megillah at night. This prayer, which concludes with the song Shoshanat Ya'kov, begins by telling us that God annulled the schemes of our enemies. The word for annul (heifir) is a pun on the word Pur. But the critical line comes later when the poet tells us that the lot (pur) of Haman was transformed into our lot (pureinu). There were obviously two lots, one of his and one of ours.
If, indeed, the essential point of the holiday, based upon its name, is the concept of lot, then we must work harder to understand the two lots. Haman's lot is pretty straight forward. He didn't believe that God would protect the Jews. A random drawing of a date to destroy the Jews would work, because there is not Divine supervision over this people or over this world. Haman and all of his Amalekite brethren throughout history have failed to notice the eternal guarantee granted to our founders.
More complex is the round about lot drawn by the Jewish nation. Initially Esther was confounded by the seemingly overwhelming forces of fortune wielded by Haman, but after some prodding by Mordechai, she remembered our national insurance policy issued by God, stashed away in a safe deposit box. But how to access it? She knew that unity and prayer would unlock the safe. The national period of fasting would have the widespread Jewish community connect experientially and spiritually. That's a plan worth remembering. So, our Sages taught us this lesson by making this Fast of Esther a part of the annual commemoration of national salvation. This is a good year to join Esther's plan. Have a joyous and meaningful Purim!
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