Purim and the Yahrzeit of Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook: Joy in Trying Times
by HaRav Dov Begon, Rosh Yeshivat Machon Meir. From his book on the Jewish Holidays “Israel Redeemed.”
“When Adar arrives we increase our joy, and when Av arrives we decrease our joy” (Ta’anit 29a).
In Adar, God shone His countenance upon us and saved us from the plot of wicked Haman. We therefore display great joy over God’s enormous kindness. Yet even in Av, during which God concealed His countenance from Israel and two Temples were destroyed, we do not eliminate our joy altogether but only “decrease” it. The foundation of our faith is that even when God “conceals His countenance,” our Father in Heaven is still acting in secret for our benefit. Therefore, a believing Jew who truly, constantly serves God, must remain joyous, whether God is revealing His face or concealing it. Joy may be compared to music. The volume can be turned up or down, but the tune of faith, trust and joy cannot be turned off altogether. “A person must bless God for the bad just as he blesses Him for the good” (Brachot 9). R. David Kimchi rejoins “with a whole heart and with joy” (Redak, I Samuel).
The State of Israel finds itself in a complex and complicated situation. We are at war with our enemies who are rising up to destroy us and to drive us out our land – it will never be! Likewise, cultural, social and political power struggles from within are seemingly weakening the strength and fortitude of the nation. Even so, we trust in God, and rely on the words of our prophets, prophets of truth and justice: “The Lord will not cast off His people, nor will He forsake His inheritance” (Psalm 94:14). The farther we march along the upward path to complete redemption, the greater will be the joy of Israel and the whole world. Ultimately we will see with our own eyes how “the nations shall cease from God’s land” (Psalm 10:16); and “the Lord shall bring the counsel of nations to naught, and make the people’s devices to be of no effect. The Lord’s counsel shall stand forever; the thoughts of His heart for all generations” (Psalm 33:10–11).
Shabbat Zachor: “The Jews had light and gladness, joy and honor.”
The Sabbath before Purim it is a mitzvah to read “Parashat Zachor” (Deuteronomy 25:17–19), to remember “what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt.” How should we understand what it is that they did? “When they encountered you on the way, and you were tired and exhausted, they cut off those lagging to your rear, and they did not fear God” (ibid 18). Amalek wished to show all the nations that Israel is merely a “nation like all other nations.” Rashi comments:
“‘When they encountered you [Heb.: karcha] on the way’: The meaning is ‘cold’ [kar] as opposed to heat. They cooled you down to lukewarm temperature from boiling heat. For all the nations were afraid of waging war against you, until they commenced, preparing the way for others. This is compared with a boiling bath into which no one could enter. One villain came and leaped into it. Although he was scalded, he cooled it for the others.”
Amalek’s gross impudence in fighting Israel immediately after the Exodus and the splitting of the sea, when all could see that Israel are exalted over all other nations, and God’s special favorite, was made possible as a result of the weakness that reigned over Israel, as it says, “Amalek came and fought Israel at Rephidim” (Exodus 17:8), which our sages interpret to mean “the place where Israel grew lax [raphu yedeihem] in Torah learning.” At Rephidim, their faith and identity were weakened, and they said, “Is God in our midst or not?” (Exodus 17:7).
Israel’s victory over Amalek was rendered possible by Moses and Joshua exalting and strengthening the spirit of the nation and their faith, as it says, “When Moses would lift his arm, Israel would prevail” (Exodus 17:11). Our sages ask: “Did Moses’s arms make or break the war? Rather, the point is that as long as Israel gazed upward and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they would prevail. Otherwise, they would fall” (Rosh Hashanah 29a). Moses, in raising his arms upward, was hinting to Israel that Amalek’s goal was to defeat Israel, which would constitute a profanation of God’s name. After all, God’s name was called upon us, Israel’s wars are God’s wars, and Israel is God’s army.
The goal of the Amalekites of the past, and those who have followed in their path through the generations until today, is to show everyone that Israel is like all the nations and can be fought and humiliated, and even annihilated, as Haman and Hitler tried to do. In our very day as well, the Arabs who seek to steal our land, and their Muslim supporters, have the same goal.
In face of this goal of humiliating Israel and blurring their identity and national purpose of bringing light to the world from Eretz Yisrael, we have to place at the head of our country a leadership that recognizes the identity and uniqueness of the Jewish People – a leadership that will broadcast faith and trust in the righteousness of our historic and divine right to our land. It has to be a leadership that will deter our enemies not only with weaponry and a strong army, but with a profound spirit and strong faith. It has to be a leadership that will unite the nation, and that will call out with a loud, clear voice, both to our people and to the whole world, that the Lord God of Israel is King, and is sovereign over all, and that He chose us from among all nations and gave us His Torah and Land. By such means may we be privileged to see with our own eyes how the tables are turned, how the Jews will have “light and gladness, joy and honor (Esther 8:16).
The Yahrzeit of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook
On the 14th of Adar, the first day of Purim 5742 (1982) our teacher and master Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook was taken to the celestial sphere. All his life he engaged in disseminating the Torah lights of his father. Those lights have spread a good and pleasant fragrance to the entire House of Israel and to the entire world. Rav Tzvi Yehuda was privileged to be the great educator who actualized the potential of his father’s blessed light and raised up numerous disciples who follow in his light.
Rav Tzvi Yehuda would customarily explain our sages’ words, “The sanctification of God’s name is greater than the Profanation of God’s name (me’chillul Hashem)” as meaning, “The greatest sanctification of God’s name is one that emerges from the profanation of God’s name.” When a believing person merits to ascend in Torah greatness, and in the fear and love of God, he merits to see with his spiritual sight how truly everything is for the best. Then, even what seems at the time like the profanation of God’s name, darkness and evil, turns out to be part of God’s kingdom.
And perhaps that is the spiritual level that the person drinking wine on Purim must reach, such that “he cannot distinguish between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai.’” Both stand beneath the watchful gaze of God, and “everything God does He does for the good.”
When the wine goes in, the fragrance comes out.
“A person is obligated to drink [Hebrew: lehitbasem] on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai’” (Megillah 7b; Orach Chaim 695:2). Seemingly we can ask: How can our sages require us to drink? Surely drunkenness causes great sin. However this is required to commemorate the miracles performed for the Jewish People on Purim that occurred by way of drinking parties. Vashti was removed from the throne by way of a drinking party, bringing in Esther. Likewise, Haman’s downfall came about through a drinking party. Our sages therefore required us to drink enough that we should remember the great miracle by way of wine.
All the same, we are not commanded to get drunk and to allow our reveling to diminish our dignity to the point of rakish foolishness, but only enough to achieve a pleasurable feeling of love for God and thankfulness for the miracles He performed for us. If, however, someone knows about himself that drinking will make him treat one of the mitzvoth lightly, even such as ritual hand-washing or the blessing after the meal, or that it will make him skip the mincha or ma’ariv prayers or behave frivolously, then he ought to abstain. “All one’s deeds should be for the sake of Heaven” (Orach Chaim 695:2, Biur Halachah).
Why do our sages use the Hebrew expression “lehitbasem” (literally to have a fragrance) for “to drink,” rather than “lehishtaker,” the normal expression for “to get drunk”? It is because, as our sages said, “When wine goes in, secrets come out” (Sanhedrin 38a). And what are the “secrets” that come out of a Jew who drinks wine on Purim? Only good words leave his lips, and, as our sages said, “‘Good’ can only mean Torah,” or, “‘Good’ can only mean a righteous person.” The opposite occurred at the drinking feast of Achashverosh. There, the king’s honorees, gathered together from amongst all the nations, sat and drank a king’s share of wine, and their true faces were revealed, all lasciviousness and corruption, the opposite of the pleasant fragrance exuded by the Jewish People even when they drink wine.
Our drinking serves to make us fragrant with the great love between the Jewish people and our beloved. May we merit to be the living fulfillment of Song of Songs 8:14: “Make haste, my beloved! Be like a gazelle or a young hart upon the mountains of spices.”
The Scroll of Esther – A Revelation of God’s Love
The story of Esther can be seen as a synopsis of the entire history of the Jewish People. At first there are difficulties and complications, with Israel facing terrible threats of extermination, but the conclusion is good and pleasant, with Israel defeating its enemies. Ultimately, The Jews have “light and gladness, and joy and honor” (Esther 8:16).
The name “Megillat Esther” (the Scroll of Esther) alludes to these two situations, one (gilui – similar to the word megilah) of God revealing His countenance to us, and the other (hester) of God hiding His face from us. Ostensibly, these two situations are opposites, but in truth, both serve one end – God’s revealing His everlasting love to His People Israel. Megillat Esther reveals to us that even when God is concealing His countenance in the darkness of the exile, where we may suffer its terrible tribulations, He still loves us – as we entreat Him daily in our evening prayers, “Never remove Your love from us.”
The custom of masquerading on Purim likewise expresses the theme of revelation and concealment. Wearing a costume hides your identity, such that on the outside you look entirely different from what you really are. The mask, however, cannot blot out the face and personality of the one behind it. In the same way, even though God, so to speak, sometimes hides His face from Israel, His love for us and His interest in our welfare endures always. It is precisely like the blessing we recite each morning before the Shema, praising God who “with love, has chosen His People Israel.” A few moments later we again affirm that God “shall bring a redeemer to His children’s children for the sake of His name, with love” (Shemoneh Esreh).
“Go gather together all the Jews” (Esther 4:16).
Esther asks of Mordechai, “Go gather together all the Jews.” On the surface, Mordechai’s mission is to unify all of the Jews, who appear to Haman as “a people scattered and dispersed among the nations” (Esther 3:8). This task seems impossible. Is it really possible to gather together and to unify all the Jews? After all, there are so many differences and so many opinions, so many streams and parties. How is it possible to gather together and unite them all? What is the secret of unity?
From where can we find the strength to gather together and unite the Jewish People? Is it only our fear of Haman’s decrees in the past, or threats to the Jewish People in the present that can unite us all? The secret of uniting all of the Jews is to return to ourselves, to return to our roots. The root of a tree is where all the divergent branches unite, and so, too, in the roots of the Jewish People, we can find what unites and binds us. Surely we all possess one Father, and our whole nation has one destiny. It is just that the tree’s root is hiding in the ground, and only the branches are visible to the eye.
As above, this is alluded to by the expression “Megillat Esther.” On the one hand, the word “megilah” is linked to the word “gilui,” meaning “revelation.” On the other hand, the word “Esther” is linked to the word “hester,” meaning “concealment.” It is the same with the human body, whose many limbs and organs are visible to the naked eye, whereas the soul, which is hidden, unites all the limbs and organs together. It is likewise the same with the Jewish People. All of us together possess one soul, for all ages.
The more we delve deeply in study to reach this understanding, to clarify and know our roots, going back to our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the more we will discover what unites us. We will discover ourselves and our private and universal destiny, and we will march together up the winding path to complete redemption, as God promised Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation . . . You shall become a blessing. . . . All the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2). Then, all together, we will merit the “new light that will shine upon Zion.”
From “Scattered and Dispersed” to “One Nation in the Land”
Purim is different from all the other holidays. While with all the other holidays, the Jewish People unite and celebrate on the same day, on Purim we split up the holiday. During normal years, we split it into two parts: Purim of unwalled towns occurs on the fourteenth of Adar, and Shushan Purim for walled cities, on the fifteenth.
This year we are privileged to have a three-way split in Purim. On the fourteenth, a Friday, we recite the Megillah and give gifts to the poor, even in Jerusalem, which has a wall going back to the days of Joshua. On the Sabbath, in walled cities, we recite “Al HaNissim” in both the Shemoneh Esreh and in Grace after Meals. On Sunday, we fulfill the mitzvot of sending food parcels to our fellow man, and the “Purim Seudah,” the festive Purim meal.
This splitting up of Purim serves to remind us that we have to publicize for two days the miracle that was performed for us in those days at this time. The first day is for all of the provinces of Ahasuerus’s kingdom, and the second day is for Shushan the Capital. For the sake of the Land of Israel’s glory, the Rabbis decreed that cities that were walled in Joshua’s time should read the Megillah on the same day as in Shushan, namely the fifteenth of Adar, “Shushan Purim” (Orach Chaim 688:1, Mishnah Berurah).
Making the miracle and the holiday last longer by spreading them out over several days serves also as an allusion to us about Israel’s plight in the exile. As in the words of Wicked Haman: “There is one people, scattered and dispersed among the nations” (Esther 3:8). True, they are one people, yet they are scattered and dispersed. This by itself is a miracle. Despite their being scattered and dispersed, they remain one people.
Today, we are in the remarkable era of the ingathering of the exiles. We are gathering together in our land, like dry bones growing skin, flesh and sinews. Speedily, it will be revealed to all that we are, indeed, “one nation in the land” (II Shmuel 7:23), solitary and special, just as God is solitary and special. According to the Midrash, God says to Israel, “You have proclaimed Me unique in the world, and I shall make you unique in the world.” May we, through coming to know our uniqueness and identity, also come to know our task and mission in our land, and in the whole world.
The entire House of Israel caught a glimpse of this when they saw the reaction of the rabbis of Yeshivat Merkaz Harav and its yeshiva high school, as well as the bereaving families of the holy children murdered by Arabs seeking to steal our land. All of them reacted out of faith and valor, out of an all-encompassing vision of the intricate and complex reality faced by our nation and our country at this hour. How fortunate we are to have been privileged to learn and to teach Rav Kook’s lights. We hope that those lights will illuminate the entire House of Israel, and that Israel will bask in their pleasant fragrance.