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PARSHAT PEKUDEI – COUNTERING HAMAN’S PLAN

Pekudei (Exodus 38:21-40:38 )

The Sages instituted the two Festivals of Purim and Hanukkah, both commemorating seminal events that happened to the Jewish nation. Yet there are a number of differences between the two Festivals. Analyzing these differences can enable us to develop a deeper understanding of these Festivals. In this instance, we will focus on Purim.

One particular noteworthy difference between Purim and Hanukkah is that there are far more mitzvot that were instituted for Purim. On Hanukkah there is one particular mitzvah – that of lighting the Menorah.1 In contrast, on Purim, there are no less than four obligatory mitzvot: reading the Megillah; eating the festive meal; Mishloach Manot (giving gifts to friends); and Matanot La’evyonim (giving to the poor). In addition, the days of Purim are called, “days of feasting and rejoicing”2, which means that we are obligated to feast (through the seudah) and in general, to be joyful.

What is the basis for so many mitzvot in comparison with Hanukkah? The Vilna Gaon3 offers a fascinating explanation that can greatly deepen our understanding of Purim. He explains that these Mitzvot are coming to counteract the threat that our enemy, Haman posed. The verse in the Megillah describes Haman’s plans for annihilating the Jewish people: “To destroy, murder and eradicate all of the Jews…and to plunder their possessions.”4 These terms for destruction appear repetitive – what does each specific point refer to?

The Gra explains, in the words of Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein5:

To destroy (lehashmid): the term shmad refers to spiritual destruction, relating to the neshamah (soul). With the destruction of the Jewish people, their spiritual endeavors would likewise cease. To murder (leharog): this refers to physically kill them and terminate their nefesh (life-force). To eradicate (le’abed): Even after having killed them, Haman further wished to remove any trace of their physical existence; so that no remnant would remain of them – in any form.6 To plunder their possessions (u’shlalam lavuz): Their assets would be possessed by others and absorbed into the ownership of the general populace. This was so that their name would disappear completely and would not even remain as “the former owners of these possessions.”

These four aspects of destruction correspond to the four component parts of man’s essence: His soul; his physical life-force (nefesh); his body; and his possessions. Haman endeavored not only to murder the Jews physically, but to destroy them spiritually, to wipe out their complete physical existence and to dispossess them of all ownership.

Each of the mitzvot of Purim celebrate the salvation that occurred concerning these four areas. The Megillah reading corresponds to Haman’s plan to destroy our spirituality which emanates from the Torah; In response, Chazal instituted a Torah reading that recounts the miracle of Purim. Rejoicing corresponds to his plan to murder us because the happier a person is, the more alive he is. Therefore, the greatest way to express Haman’s failure to kill us is through rejoicing. Feasting corresponds to Haman’s plan to destroy our physical bodies. We have a festive meal that indulges and promotes our physical existence. Mishloach Manot and Matanot La’evyonim correspond to Haman’s attempt to remove the notion of Jewish ownership. We celebrate his failure by expressing our ownership of our possessions in the most meaningful way – by gifting them to friends and to those who are in need.

On deeper analysis, it seems that these Mitzvot do not merely correspond to Haman’s attempts to destroy us, but they serve as a rectification of the sins that initially led to the decree of destruction. The Avudraham7 writes that the reason we have a feast on Purim is to commemorate the miracles that were performed for the Jewish people in the Purim story through the various feasts. At the first feast, Queen Vashti was deposed, which paved the way for Esther to become Queen. The subsequent feasts led to the chain of events that brought about the downfall of Haman. The obvious question is that the first seudah constituted a sin. Indeed, it was one of the reasons for the decree of destruction. Accordingly, why are we commemorating that meal in particular? The answer is that we are not really just remembering an event that happened, rather we are trying to rectify the wrongs done at that time. The Jews ate at the seudah for the wrong reasons, and we try to fix that error by eating a meal for the sake of God.8

Another contributory cause of the decree of destruction was the lack of unity among the Jewish people. When Haman approached Achashverosh with his plan to destroy the Jewish people, he outlined why they do not deserve to be kept alive. “And Haman said to King Acharshverosh, there is one nation scattered and dispersed (mefurad) among the people.”9 The commentaries explain that Haman was making an accurate criticism of the Jewish people, one which helped convince the King that they would not be protected by God. Haman was arguing that the Jewish people were not unified and accordingly, they were lacking the Divine protection that they merited when they were unified.10

Consequently, one of the most important ways of removing the decree of destruction from Above11, was to renew the sense of unity amongst the Jewish people. Rabbi Yonasan Ebeshitz explains that this was the intention of Esther when she instructed Mordechai how to overturn the decree. “Go, assemble all the Jews to be found in Shushan, and fast for me.”12 She recognized that only a unified effort could overturn the decree.13

With this understanding of the significance of unity in the Purim story, it is easy to understand why the Rabbis instituted Mitzvot in the realm of inter-personal relationships. Purim reminds us of the importance of unity amongst the Jewish people. Giving to one’s fellow Jew is an excellent tool to help us care more about them. Moreover, it is not enough for a person to give to one’s friends alone, he must not ignore those who are far less fortunate – the destitute people who are easily forgotten about. Therefore, in addition to Mishloach Manot, Chazal instructed us in Matanot La‘evyonim.14

Finally, the fundamental reason for the decree of destruction was the that the Jewish people had given up hope of keeping the Torah. For the first time, there was no Temple and they were in exile. There was a real concern that the Jewish people would melt into the non-Jewish nations and give up on the Torah. The way to rectify that is by learning Torah, thereby reminding ourselves of the importance of the Torah. We do that on Purim by reading the Megillah which constitutes the mitzva of Talmud Torah (Torah learning).

We have seen how the Mitzvot of Purim serve to commemorate how G-d saved us from Haman’s four stage plan of destruction and to serve as a rectification of the sins that were the cause of the decree. May we merit to observe all the Mitzvot in their entirety.

By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Notes

  1. We do also say Hallel but that is something that as instituted on other days that are not viewed as full Festivals, such as Rosh Chodesh.
  2. Esther, 9:22.
  3. Commentary of Vilna Gaon on Esther, 3:13.
  4. Esther, 3:13.
  5. ‘Purim, Removing the Mask’, pp.176-177. Many of the ideas in this article are based on Section F of this wonderful sefer.
  6. The Gra in Aderet Eliyah writes that Haman intended to burn the Jew’s bodies and reduce them to ash.
  7. Avudraham, Seder Tefillat Purim.
  8. This idea is discussed at greater length in my essay, ‘Purim – Keeping Hope’.
  9. Esther, 3:8.
  10. Siftei Chaim, Moadim 2, p.197-205: Sfts Emes, quoted in Beshem Amru, ‘Chamesh Megillot‘, p.20.
  11. Although the decree was from Haman, the Sagesl state clearly that the decree only took place because in Heaven there was a decree of destruction (Esther Rabbah, 7:14).
  12. Esther, 4:16.
  13. Quoted in Beshem Amru, ‘Chamesh Megillot‘, p.20. Also see Siftei Chaim, p.202.
  14. This idea is discussed at greater length in my essay, ‘Mishloach Manot and Matanot L’evyonim’.

WEEKLY TORAH PORTION,

The Guiding Light

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

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