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Ephemeral or Eternal? The Message of the Masquerade

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By: Tehilla Berger 

(Current MMY Student)

Purim is perhaps the most popular holiday among Jewish children. After all, on what other holiday is it a custom both to dress up and to receive free candy? While masquerading on Purim is both enthralling and invigorating, the peculiarity of the custom begs explanation.

The Mishna Torah has a section in זמנים devoted to the הלכות of פורים and חנוכה. The title "הלכות מגילה וחנוכה" contains a blatant incongruity. Why doesn't the Rambam refer to these הלכות as "הלכות פורים וחנוכה"? Why are the הלכות of פורים referred to by the restrictive title "הלכות מגילה"? What is it about the centrality of the מגילה on פורים that allows it to trump all the other מצוות היום in significance? Furthermore, in the last הלכה in the section, the Rambam equates the importance of the מגילה to that of the חמישה חומשי תורה בימות המשיח. Although the rest of נביאים and כתובים will no longer be relevant, מגילת אסתר will remain pertinent and applicable. While we will abandon the practice of recollecting the painful experiences in Jewish History, we will always commemorate the story of the Jews in שושן. In effect, the message of the מגילה is so great, it is paramount to כל התורה כולה. What then is the potent, vital message that the מגילה imparts to its readers?

The גמרא שבת פח discusses the famous parallel drawn between מתן תורה and מגילת אסתר. In פרק ט, פסוק כז the מגילה states "קימו וקבלו היהודים עליהם ועל זרעם ועל כל הנילוים עליהם".While the simple reading of the פסוק is that the Jews accepted upon themselves to commemorate the holiday of Purim annually, the גמרא extracts a deeper significance. The Jews at the time of the מגילה, "קימו מה שקבלו כבר". They upheld that which they had accepted previously. At מתן תורה, G-d suspended הר סיני above them, like a barrel. If they were to reject the תורה, the mountain would bury them alive. Thus, they were essentially coerced into accepting the תורה, as the alternative was death. In contrast, בימי פורים, the Jews willingly accepted upon themselves עול מלכות שמים.  

While the imagery in this explanation is fascinating, it is a difficult concept to accept in the literal sense. In fact, the Gemara itself immediately asks, “If the Jews were forced into their acceptance of the תורה, what makes them bound by it?” The תורה is characterized as a ברית. In order for a ברית to be binding, it needs the acquiescence of both parties involved. Furthermore, if we only truly accepted the תורה בימי פורים, what was the status of our servitude to G-d during the more than nine hundred years preceding it?

Perhaps the גמרא was highlighting a fundamental concept present in both the מגילה and in our service of G-d. מתן תורה was a luminous revelation of G-d, accompanied by the dramatic effects of אש, קולות, וברקים. It was the only occurrence in human history in which G-d revealed Himself to an entire nation. Having experienced such a lucid encounter with G-d Himself, it was impossible for the Jewish people not to accept the Torah. G-d's truth and uniqueness were so palpable in the moment that the choice to accept the Torah was, in essence, no choice at all.  Although perhaps not physically forced, the very nature of the miraculous experience and direct encounter with G-d emotionally and psychologically forced the Jews to accept the Torah. While they accepted it willingly, they did so in a state of clarity which they would never again attain.

In the time of the מגילה, however, the predicament of the Jews was dire. The Jews were lacking in their comprehension and clarity of G-d. In fact, the absence of ‘שם ה in the מגילה highlights just that. The Jews in the time of the מגילה were threatened in every which way. Physically, they were destined for obliteration. Economically, they were in desperate straits.  The גמרא מגילה יא' explains that the name אחשורוש alludes to this, "שהכל נעשין רשין בימיו".  In a spiritual sense, the Jews were threatened on numerous levels. The גמרא מגילה explains that miscalculations as to when the era of בית שני was to begin and when the גלות officially ended left the Jews confused. אחשורוש, using this as an opportunity to denounce the truth of Judaism and strengthen his own kingdom, desecrated the holy vessels of the מקדש by using them for his mundane pursuits. The Jews were lured into the culture of the empire, as is evident in their attendance to אחשורוש's party, and even went so far as to bow down to עבודה זרה. According to the גמרא יב, these two reasons were enough to make the Jewish people worthy of annihilation. "והעיר שושן נבוכה"- The Jewish people were confused and perplexed. They had anything but a clear perception of G-d and His Glory.

The salvation in the מגילה evolved from behind the scenes. Although the miraculous nature of the series of events that led to the salvation were by no means coincidental, they also did not appear in the form of a divine revelation. The Jews had to reflect on the painful experience to recognize 'יד ה in it. It was through this painful experience, one of obscurity and disillusionment, which caused the Jews to form a newfound connection with G-d. Therefore, it is specifically in this context that the Jews willingly reaccepted the Torah upon themselves.

In Lonely Man of Faith, Rav Soloveitchik distinguishes between the two components imbedded in all of mankind, each of which relate to G-d in a drastically different way. The first relates to G-d through mind-blowing, natural experiences. While these experiences force him to recognize the sublime nature of G-d, the effects are transient and peripheral. In contrast, the second component of man forms an internal connection to G-d through his painful experiences. Man is helpless, the only hope he has is that perhaps G-d will save him. He makes the conscious choice to put his trust in G-d, a constant choice to build a relationship with Him. A connection like that is permanent, meaningful, strong, and everlasting.

מתן תורה was the epitome of a mind-blowing experience; thus, the effect was ephemeral. In fact, just a mere forty days later, the Jewish People were already indulging in idol worship. Because the recognition of and submission to G-d in the times of Purim came through suffering and despair, it was implanted internally, and therefore, everlasting.

תהילים פרק צב, פסוק ג encapsulates this phenomenon in a poetic and succinct way. "להגיד בבקר חסדיך ואמונתך בלילות". During the day, one may praise G-d for his external kindness, but it is at night, or metaphorically, during darkness and despair, when one comes to a true appreciation of G-d's faithfulness.

As terror in Israel has escalated over the past short while, כלל ישראל has suffered tremendous losses.  On numerous occasions, I have been asked if I feel that the present predicament in Israel is impeding my "gap-year" experience. While I cannot deny the difficulties we all have encountered this year, my response to all such inquiries is a resounding ‘no’. Devoting a gap year to Torah study in Israel is an optimal opportunity to strengthen one’s commitment to G-d, Torah, and Judaism. I believe that the painful experiences we have been through can be channeled to further that commitment. Yes, it is undeniable that this year has been difficult. But it is also undeniable that the challenging experiences can lead to increased commitment to Torah. Just as the Jews of Shushan connected with G-d during a period of tragedy and emerged from it with a reaffirmation of faith and commitment, we too can dedicate ourselves to our relationship with G-d and to Torah study, despite the difficulties we are facing.

Life, by its very nature, is dynamic, composed of its ups and downs. Hopefully, the majority of one's experiences will be joyful and positive. But it is almost preposterous to think that there will be no painful experiences as well. Pain is frightening, sometimes even completely debilitating.  It is imperative that one meets one’s challenges head on, and wherever possible, uses them as a stepping stone to reach even greater heights.  Inspiring experiences are invigorating, but ephemeral. Painful, complex ones lead to a strengthening of commitment, leaving us with an eternal effect.

מגילת אסתר depicts the catastrophe that faced the Jewish people, that of complete annihilation. G-d’s name is missing in the מגילה, but His presence, although concealed, is not. It was through this experience of angst, bewilderment, and despondency, that we, the Jewish people, reinforced and enhanced our relationship with G-d. The tenuous nature of our experience, rather than leaving us disillusioned, strengthened our commitment to תורה ומצות. The מגילה illustrates that even the most difficult of challenges can be transformed into unparalleled growth experiences. That even through the hiddenness, true connection and illumination can surface. That is the message of Purim—the message of the masquerade.      

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