A Time for Spiritual Sobriety
MAX STERN DIVISION OF COMMUNAL SERVICES
RABBI ISAAC ELCHANAN THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
AN AFFILIATE OF YESHIVA UNIVERSITY
TEXTS AND TOPICS IN TEACHING LIMMUDEI KODESH
A TIME FOR SPIRITUAL SOBRIETY
The RAV on PURIM
A STUDY IN THE THOUGHT OF THE “RAV,”
RABBI JOSEPH B. SOLOVEITCHIK, Z”L
DR. MOSHE SOKOLOW
Professor of Jewish Education
Azrieli Graduate School of
Jewish Education and Administration
The RAV discusses the paradoxical nature of Purim. On one hand, it is a joyous festival celebrating the miraculous salvation of the Jews from almost certain destruction. Thanksgiving and praise mark this aspect of the day. On the other hand, however, the same occasion recalls a near-death experience that was interrupted only by divine intervention. Feelings of despair and plaintive pleas for compassion mark this aspect of the day. Are these contrary dimensions unique to Purim or do they constitute a אב בנין, an archetype, for other circumstances? How is a Jew supposed to integrate these seemingly irreconcilable feelings into the celebration of one and the same occasion?
The RAV explains this contradiction as an ordinary human condition. Fear and anxiety enable us to recognize that there is, indeed, evil in the world. Recognizing our predicament must instill in us humility, which, alone, can lead us out of jeopardy–intact.
According to the RAV, “the Persian galut apparently was meant to provide lessons on how to survive as a people” (Besdin, 179). He lists four important lessons that must be learned from the story of Purim.
- From time to time, human beings replace their personalities, in which the image of God is implanted, with a satanic personality in which evil deeds prevail.
- Amalek is the symbol of evil and the enemy of mankind, in general, but first, foremost, and especially, he attacks Jews.
- The hatred of Jews is not aimed at the religious Jews alone, or even specifically. It is aimed at everyone who is known by the name, Jew.
- Whenever the modern Satan-Amalek struggles with “the diffuse and scattered nation” (עם אחד מפזר ומפרד בין העמים), there will surely arise a factor that will protect that nation, oppose Amalek with full force, and overcome him.
Step One: The Halakhic Proposition
In classical homiletic fashion, the RAV’s first step is to establish a halakhic premise for the derashah. In this case, the premise is that one is obligated to read Megillat Esther twice: once by night and, again, by day.
אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי חייב אדם לקרות את המגילה בלילה ולשנותה ביום שנאמר (תהילים כב) אלהי אקרא יומם ולא תענה ולילה ולא דומיה לי… אמר רבי חלבו אמר עולא ביראה חייב אדם לקרות את המגילה בלילה ולשנותה ביום שנאמר (תהילים ל) למען יזמרך כבוד ולא ידום ה’ אלהי לעולם אודך -תלמודבבלימסכתמגילהדףדעמודא
- Yehoshua ben Levi said: One is obliged to read the Megillah by night, and to read it again by day, as it says, “My God! I call by day and You do not answer, by night and I get no response from You” (Ps. 22:3). It was also said, by R. Helbo in the name of Ula Birah, that one is obliged to read the Megillah by night and to read it again by day, as it says, “Let honor sing Your praise and not be silent; the LORD, my God, I thank You eternally” (Ps. 30:13).
RAMBAM stipulates the identical conclusion–omitting the prooftexts:
מצוה לקרות את כולה, ומצוה לקרותה בלילה וביום. רמב”ם הלכות מגילה וחנוכה פרק א הלכה ג It is a mitzvah to read [the Megillah] in its entirety and a mitzvah to read it by night and by day.
Step Two: The Philosophical Significance of the Halakhic Text
The next step–equally typical of the RAV’s classical homiletic style–is to demonstrate that the halakhic source he has just cited is not a “barren” legal formula but a “pregnant” value statement as well. He accomplishes this by distinguishing carefully between the two opinions cited in the Gemara (“We have before us one halakhah with two contradictory reasons”) and attributing each one to a separate motivation. NOTE: I would challenge an advanced class to draw this distinction on their own.
Alternatively, I would first have the class read the distinction and challenge them to locate it in the words of the Gemara.
- R. Yehoshua ben Levi sees the Megillah as a prayer recited out of despair.
- R. Helbo sees it as a song of praise for deliverance from harm.
The RAV characterizes the two approaches as follows: R. Yehoshua ben Levi cites a verse from that famous chapter of Psalms, “My God, My God, why have You abandoned me,” a chapter which expresses the emotions of pain, deep frustration, and loneliness; a feeling of capitulation arises from these words… They constitute words of prayer that give expression to an emotional state of deep depression, and a heartfelt plea to God to proffer assistance during this time of great crisis… The reading of the Megillah is perceived as a prayer recited from despair, as a request for compassion and rescue.
- Helbo cites a verse from “A psalm, a song of the dedication of the house, for David,” a chapter that expresses an attitude of relief and satisfaction; the thanksgiving of a man for whom a great miracle has occurred; a chapter that contains expressions of wonder and the most profound gratitude. [R. Helbo] made his ruling because he apparently saw in the reading of the Megillah a matter of psalm, a song of praise for a miracle which occurred, for which the Megillah must be read both by night and by day.
Step Three: Victory and Jeopardy:
Appealing to a Paradox
Purim, then, is a paradox (“a dialectic”). The RAV acknowledges the “two-faceted” nature of Purim (“a day of joy and thanksgiving, on the one hand, and a day of prayer and soul-searching, on the other”), even locating its origin in the Gemara: אמר רבא: מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי. תלמוד בבלי מסכת מגילה דף ז עמוד ב
Rava said: One must become intoxicated on Purim until he cannot distinguish between “Haman is cursed” and “Mordekhai is blessed.”
Note: I would challenge a good class to read the passage from the Gemara and come up with either “paradox” or “dialectic” on their own. [The “trick,” of course, is for them to link the “cursed” to the opinion of R. Yehoshua ben Levi and the “blessed” to that of R. Helbo.] This might also present an opportunity to introduce the significance of the dialectic in the RAV’s philosophy to enable them, one day, to comprehend the nature of “synthesis.”
* * * *
Yes. It is indeed a paradox, but so–according to the RAV–is Yahadut: It appears paradoxical to mix together a song of victory with a prayer for compassion. But that is what we are: a paradoxical nation. Paradox is a part of our essence.
This paradox is not exclusive to Purim. In fact, the RAV maintains that it is a feature of our daily prayers as well: There is no clear or absolute distinction between a prayer of praise and one of request. We have no prayer that is exclusively one of praise and thanksgiving, without any trace of request or supplication. No matter how happy we are, how full of gratitude for the good portion we have been allocated, we cannot overlook the fact that we have no guarantee that the depression and the crisis in which we had been mired will not return and reappear. The joy and the thanksgiving, which often fill man’s heart, cannot entirely expel his anxieties over the future.
* * * *
NOTE: I would next give the students the following Talmudic statements and ask them to relate each to one of the two facets of Purim described above. Their ability to assign each statement to the correct facet will test their comprehension of the difference between them.
הימנה שכינה, אמרה: (תהלים כ”ב) אלי אלי למה עזבתנ . ותעמד בחצר בית המלך הפנימית. אמר רבי לוי: כיון שהגיעה לבית הצלמים – נסתלקה תלמוד בבלי מסכת מגילה דף טו עמוד ב
- Levi said: When [Esther] reached the hall of idolatry the Divine presence departed from her, whereupon she said: “My lord, my lord, why have you abandoned me?” (Psalm 22) אי הכי הלל נמי נימא! … רב נחמן אמר: קרייתא זו הלילא. תלמוד בבלי מסכת מגילה דף יד עמוד א Should Hallel not be said [on Purim] as well? R. Nahman said, The recitation [of the Megillah] is the equivalent of Hallel. NOTE: A clever student might argue that R. Nahman’s statement actually covers both facets since Hallel contains both prayer and praise. Indeed, the RAV himself uses Hallel as an embodiment of the paradox in the
continuation of the preceding citation:
Even the “Egyptian” Hallel contains chapters of joy and thanksgiving–“Halleluyah; Give praise you servants of the LORD,” and “When Israel left Egypt”–on the one hand, and chapters of request and supplication–“Not for us,” “Please, O LORD, save us”–on the other. Akind of victory hymn–“Judah sanctified Him, Israel was His kingdom”—on one hand, and the prayer for supplication–“Please, O LORD, save us”—on the other.
Step Four: Purim as a “dugma” (prefiguration) of Jewish History
I have borrowed the term “dugma” from RASHI who utilizes it throughout his commentary on Shir haShirim to describe the relationship between the allegory of the song and the history it prefigures (or: foreshadows).
According to the RAV, we experience the paradox of victory and jeopardy daily. The fact of the Jews’ exposure to danger is not just a tragic truth. It is more than that: Man’s essential recognition that he is constantly exposed to danger nurtures several moral traits of a man who recognizes the fact that he lacks security.
* * * *
Note: Challenge the students to find a connection between the following two statements which the RAV cites in support of his contention that the Halakhah is aware of the danger to which man is constantly exposed. If they need a hint, cite this sentence from the RAV: “Man is exposed to surprises and dangers-not only physically, but spiritually as well.”
כי תבנה בית חדש ועשית מעקה לגגך ולא תשים דמים בביתך כי יפל הנפל ממנו: דברים פרק כב פסוק ח Should you build a new house, place a parapet about the roof. Do not let blood be spilt in your home for someone could fall off it. … ועשו סייג לתורה אבות א:א Place a fence about the Torah.
The RAV says:
Man is always pressured and burdened by influences in the spiritual domain, too, and he is not immune to surprises or dangers there, as well.
* * * *
Is it only on Purim that we experience the paradox? The RAV thinks that the Megillah is prefiguring–foreshadowing–a constant feature of Jewish history. Here I would like to note that the recognition that every creature is exposed to dangers finds its expression in Megillat Esther and it is very characteristic of the mode of Jewish life in all the lands of their dispersion throughout all times (Rav’s emphasis). In the Diaspora a Jew is always exposed to unanticipated dangers. The dread of sudden danger, however, is universal. Danger constantly stalks people, both as individuals and as political entities. I should also add here –without any connection to concrete events whatsoever–that this applies to the State of Israel, too, its ministers and military commanders, particularly as vicious enemies surround this state on all sides.
What lesson we are supposed to learn from this constant paradox? Humility. Man is naturally inclined towards pride and arrogance, towards aggression and standoffishness. The trait of humility is acquired only after bitter and difficult experience, when man reaches a clear conclusion that on account of his successes and attainments he is unremittingly exposed to many and great dangers. Humility is the form of expression that such a process takes.
Where do we see humility modeled in the story of Purim? In Mordekhai. In the Megillah we read (2:11): “Each and every day, Mordekhai would stroll before the courtyard of the women’s residence to find out how Esther was doing and what had become of her.” Had Mordekhai abandoned his humility to announce, publicly, that he was a close relative of Queen Esther, he would certainly have been treated with special respect by the masses, but then–the whole miracle of Purim would not have taken place. The miracle of Purim could take place only by virtue of Mordekhai’s humility. Mordekhai’s greatness expressed itself in the fact that he knew himself to be exposed to many dangers, and that in these situations, in particular, man must adhere ever closer to the trait of humility. A man’s greatness is in direct proportion to his humility. The two are interdependent. The miracle did not occur only on account of the virtue of Queen Esther; the modesty and humility of Mordekhai contributed no less. His personality and feeling of responsibility influenced the reinforcement of his trait of humility.
Step Five: The Absurd and the Accidental: The True Lessons of Purim
The RAV asks:
- Do absurd and accidental things exist in nature or in history?
- Do we have the right to speak of fate or about luck as real factors in the record of a society?
[NOTE: I call your attention to an earlier unit in this series, entitled: “Yosef and the Story of Purim,” in which the question of coincidence is examined.]
The RAV enumerates four “lessons” of Purim :
- “Our faith in man must not blind us to the demonic within him.” From time to time human beings replace their personalities in which the image of God is implanted, with a personality in which Satanic deeds are noticeable. This discovery was, for the Jews of Persia, a traumatic moment which they found very difficult to accept and to comprehend. This discovery is a no less difficult experience for all the Jewish communities that encounter it throughout the generations and in all eras. The Jew believes that every creature possesses some divine feature; that at all times and in all of life’s circumstances, something good reposes in him and a divine spark still glows in his personality…Suddenly, the Jew discovers that sometimes man can be transformed into a real satanic personality, the symbol of evil and corruption.
2 “Every upheaval, every major movement and event in history has dire possibilities for the Jews.” Amalek is the symbol of evil and the enemy of mankind, in general, but first, foremost, and especially, he attacks Jews. While illogical and incomprehensible, it is an historical fact, nevertheless, that Amalek hates Jews more than any other nation, and is prepared to go to greater lengths to cause them harm… Jews were not always aware of the dangers that lay about them. They could not imagine that manifestations of hatred or discrimination towards them could take on catastrophic proportions to the extent of the design of a “final solution.”… In the Megillah we read Haman’s words: “Nothing is of any value to me whenever I see Mordekhai, the Jew, seated in the King’s courtyard” (5:13). Haman couldn’t stand the sight of Mordekhai the Jew, and this seemed sufficient reason for him to plan and implement destruction and annihilation…. My father used to tell me, in the name of his father, that those who give the fullest expression to the designs of Amalek are those wicked people who say: “Let us exterminate the Jewish people and the name of Israel will never again be heard” (Ps. 83:5). An unqualified anti-Semite is adescendant of Amalek, and is subject to the imperative of: “Surely eradicate the memory of Amalek.” Amalek tries, relentlessly, to gather energy to commit genocide. The Nazi scourge and the Soviet oppressor are descended of Amalek.
3 “A common destiny unites all Jews.” The same lesson which was learned by the Jews of Germany in the last generation, as well as by other Jewish communities in different lands and at different times. The lesson is that the hatred of Jews is not aimed only at the religious Jews alone, or specifically. It is aimed at everyone who is known by the name, Jew. The hatred is directed towards Jews who are religious, secular, and even heretical; the Jew who is full of nationalistic Jewish feelings, and the Jew who tends towards integration and assimilation. Amalek hates all Jews.
- “God intercedes whenever total destruction faces the Jewish people.” Whenever the modern Satan-Amalek struggles with “the diffuse and scattered nation,” there will surely arise a factor that will protect that nation, oppose Amalek with full force, and overcome him. I cannot name that factor, nor even describe its attributes, but I know that it acts in the name, and with the force, of divine providence… In the case of Purim the agents–divine agents sent by God to fight Amalek-Haman–were Mordekhai, the Jew; the elderly, chastised survivor; and a young woman. The elderly man and the young woman were chosen by the Creator to undertake the rescue mission and they succeeded in forcing the enemy–with all his decisive influence in the kingdom of Persia and Medea–into submission.
Step Six: Purim, Pesah and the Messianic Age:
As long as the RAV introduced the subject of the Messianic Age, we would do well to see what else he has to say here about it.
Study the position of Rabbi Hillel in the following passage.
צדיק ונושע הוא עני ורכב על חמור ועל עיר בן אתנות. בבית שני ואמר (זכריה ט:ט) גילי מאד בת ציון הריעי בת ירושלים הנה מלכך יבוא לך שרא ליה מריה לרבי הילל! חזקיה אימת הוה – בבית ראשון, ואילו זכריה קא מתנבי רבי הילל אומר: אין להם משיח לישראל, שכבר אכלוהו בימי חזקיה. אמר רב יוסף: תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף צט עמוד א
Rabbi Hillel said: The Jews have no Messiah, for they have already consumed him in the days of Hezekiah. Rav Yosef said: May God forgive Rabbi Hillel. When did Hezekiah live? During the first Temple. And yet Zekhariah, who lived during the second Temple, prophesied: “Rejoice greatly, Daughter of Zion; Give cheer, Daughter of Jerusalem; Behold your king comes to you. He is righteous and a savior; poor and riding upon a donkey, upon the foal of an ass” (9:9).
Is Rabbi Hillel denying the concept of a human Messiah? According to the RAV, the answer to this question can be ascertained from the following verses:
הר הא-להים חרבה: (א) ומשה היה רעה את צאן יתרו חתנו כהן מדין וינהג את הצאן אחר המדבר ויבא אל שמות פרק ג את יצחק ואת יעקב: (כה) וירא א-להים את בני ישראל וידע א-להים: (כד) וישמע א-להים את נאקתם ויזכר אלהים את בריתו את אברהם שמות פרק ב
God heard their cries and recalled His covenant with Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov. God observed the Children of Israel and God knew. Moshe was herding the sheep of his father-in-law, Yitro, the Midianite priest…
What does the proximity of these verses indicate?
That the author of the drama of our redemption is God but its principal actors are His human agents. God’s recognition of the plight of the Jewish people launched the Exodus but only after Moshe agreed to serve as its captain.
According to the Midrash, the negotiations between God and Moshe concerning his mission lasted for seven whole days, and there was no alternative because it was necessary for the proper agent to be appointed for the process of redemption to occur. Salvation always begins from a bitter and nerve-racking struggle between Amalek-Satan and the agent for the redemption. Without this mortal combat there is no opportunity for redemption. This is what our Master, Moshe, did at the time of the exodus from Egypt, this is what Mordekhai and Esther did in Shushan, and this is what the King, Messiah, will do.
The RAV’s answer, then, to the question concerning Rabbi Hillel is: Rabbi Hillel did not, perish the thought, deny the matter of redemption, he only intended to say that God will reign, alone, and will bring salvation to Israel directly, without any need for an agent of redemption. The difficulty in Rabbi Hillel’s theory is unrecognizable to any of us. It would appear that the sequence of events during the redemption would be the work of the human agent. Redemption is a matter of agency; it consists of a principal and an agent.
Step Seven: The Final Lesson
At the start of Part Five we posed two of the RAV’s questions, which we are now prepared to answer:
- Why was it necessary for the events of Purim to take place at all?
- What is actually accomplished by it?
NOTE: The answers to these questions can be anticipated by examining the following verse: דברים י:יט ואהבתם את הגר כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים
What is the connection between our estrangement in Egypt and looking out for the welfare of the underprivileged and unprotected in our society?
Drawing upon the historical precedent of Pesah, the RAV explains that the events of Purim, like those of our earlier enslavement in Egypt, were intended to educate us. The enslavement in Egypt engendered a concern for the unfortunate and unprotected, even non-Jewish, while the threat of extermination that hung over us in Persia was intended to promote a very particular brand of Jewish morality known as rahmanut (compassion). As the RAV notes: This is a sensitive Hebrew word, whose pronunciation, in Yiddish, gives it a special flavor. The expression: “Yiddische rachmonus,” says it all. Here is a characteristic expression for the special sensitivity and gentleness that mark the Jew and his outlook on the respect due to another [Jew].
The RAV concludes:
From their difficult and bitter history, Jews have learned sublime properties to which they became attached over the course of many generations and which became part of their nature. As it is with regard to the Exodus from Egypt–that we are not allowed to take our minds off it, and we must recall it daily–so it is, too, with the miracle of Purim. “And these days of Purim will never pass from among the Jews and their memory will never pass from their descendants.”