How to Defeat the Next Haman

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Rabbi Eli J. Mansour 

 

Queen Ester received word that her cousin, Mordechai, who had adopted and raised her, was sitting in the public square dressed like a mourner, wearing torn clothing and sackcloth, and crying.  She immediately sent one of her servants, Hatach, to go find out “mah zeh ve’al mah zeh” – what this was all about (Ester 4:5).  Mordechai replied by informing Ester of Haman’s diabolic plan to exterminate the Jews. 

 

Ester’s question to Mordechai, on the surface, seems simple and straightforward, but the Gemara (Megillah 15a) reveals to us that Ester was asking something much deeper.   

 

The phrase “mah zeh ve’al mah zeh,” the Gemara explains, alludes to the Torah’s description in the Book of Shemot (32:15) of the stone tablets that Moshe brought from atop Mount Sinai: “mizeh umizeh hem ketuvim – they were engraved on this side and that side.”  Meaning, the text which Gd had engraved onto the tablets could be read from both sides.  When Ester inquired about “mah zeh ve’al mah zeh,” the Gemara comments, she was actually asking whether the Jews had transgressed Gd’s commandments, which were etched upon both sides of the tablets.  Upon hearing that Mordechai was publicly mourning, Ester immediately understood that the Jews were in trouble.  She promptly sent a message to Mordechai asking whether the Jews were guilty of transgressing the Torah’s laws, on account of which they now found themselves in a dire crisis. 

 

The Gemara’s explanation of Ester’s question leaves us puzzled.  First and foremost, why didn’t Ester simply ask if the Jews had violated the Torah?  Why did she find it necessary to make reference to the two sides of the luhot (tablets)?  Is this not a peculiar way to ask if the Jews were unfaithful to Gd?  How is this seemingly trivial detail about the luhot relevant to the looming disaster? 

 

Moreover, according to the Gemara’s reading, Mordechai does not seem to answer Ester’s question.  She asked whether the Jews transgressed the Torah, and he responded that Haman planned to annihilate them.  How does this response address Ester’s inquiry? 

 

Torah “Inside” and “Outside” 

 

The following, powerful explanation of the Gemara was offered by the “Maggid” (“Preacher”) of Slonim, Rav Yehuda Leib Adel (1757-1828), in Afikeh Yehuda. 

 

Let us begin by posing the question as to the significance of the “two-sided” quality of the luhot.  Gd miraculously engraved the text of the commandments upon the tablets in such a way that it could be read from either side.  Why was this miracle necessary? 

 

This supernatural quality of luhot teaches us that the laws of the Torah are binding upon us both “mizeh umizeh” – inside and outside.  We are required to observe the Torah both inside the Land of Israel, when our nation lives as it is meant to live, with the Bet Hamikdash in place and the Shechinah (divine presence) in our midst, and also outside the land, during periods of exile, when we find ourselves dispersed among other nations.  We might have assumed that the Torah is relevant and binding only under ideal conditions, when we live together in our land, free from foreign influences.  But in the Diaspora, as we live under the constant, pervasive influence of other beliefs, value systems, and cultures, we might find it too difficult to preserve our unique tradition, to resist the current and commit ourselves to a Torah way of life.  The luhot were thus engraved on both sides – showing us that our obligation to Gd’s laws does not depend on geography, or on circumstances.  Whether we are living in Eretz Yisrael with Gd’s presence among us, or we live dispersed among foreign nations, we must faithfully obey the Torah’s laws and follow its values. 

 

Needless to say, as we know all too well, observing the Torah in exile is a difficult challenge.  Living as a small minority, with people all around us embracing beliefs and lifestyles that are very different from ours, makes it exceedingly hard to devote ourselves to our traditions and obey the Torah’s commands.   

 

And it is precisely under such circumstances when Haman and his ilk pose the greatest threat. 

 

On the Shabbat before Purim, we read the section of “Zachor,” in fulfillment of the command to always remember how Haman’s ancestors, the nation of Amalek, attacked Beneh Yisrael as they journeyed from Egypt to Mount Sinai.  In this section, the Torah emphasizes that Amalek launched its assault “baderech – along the road” (Devarim 25:18).  Amalek realized that Am Yisrael is most vulnerable “outside,” on the road, during its sojourn in exile.  Under these circumstances, when we are exposed to foreign influences, we are most susceptible to spiritual failure.  And so this is when Amalek attacks, seeking to capitalize on our frailty. 

 

This explains Ester’s otherwise unusual question.  She was not asking Mordechai simply if the Jews of the time were guilty of wrongdoing.  Rather, she was asking if they had forgotten the message of “mizeh,” if they failed to acknowledge the Torah’s relevance even in exile, while living in Persia, submerged in the decadent, overindulgent Persian society.  Ester suspected that the Jews’ current crisis came as a result of their assimilation, their embracing the surrounding society’s values and norms in place of the Torah.   

 

The Jews’ Spiritual Awakening 

 

Unfortunately, Ester was correct.  The Gemara (Megillah 12a) famously tells that the Jews of Shushan participated in Ahashverosh’s lavish feast.  Leaving aside the technical question of whether or not kosher food and wine were available, their very presence at this seven-day party speaks volumes about their submergence in Persian culture.  This event was characterized by overindulgence, intoxication, merrymaking, frivolity and decadence – and the Jews fully participated, a woeful testament to their embracing Persian culture in place of Torah commitment. 

 

Mordechai thus responded to Ester’s question by informing her of “kol asher karahu” (literally, “all that happened to him”- 4:7).  The Midrash (Ester Rabbah 8:5) explains that Mordechai here was telling Ester that the Jews came under threat by the descendant of Amalek, about whom the Torah says, “asher karecha baderech” – they surprised Beneh Yisrael along the road.  Mordechai told Ester that indeed, the Jews of the time were endangered by Amalek, who always attacks when they are spiritually frail, when they are subjected to the lures and pressures of the “derech,” of their sojourn in exile, where they are exposed to foreign influences. 

 

The Jews responded to Haman’s threat with prayer and repentance, recommitting themselves to Torah faith and observance.  Toward the end of Megilat Ester (9:27), we read, “Kiyemu vekibelu haYehudim – The Jews fulfilled and accepted…”  The Gemara (Shabbat 88a) explains this verse to mean, “Kiyemu mah shekibelu kevar” – the Jews reaffirmed their past commitment.  Having seen the consequences of abandoning the Torah in exile, the Jews renewed their devotion, committing to practice the Torah even there in Persia, while living in a decadent society.  They made the firm decision to reinforce their loyalty to Torah, understanding that it is binding “mizeh umizeh” – even under difficult conditions. 

 

Our Personal Exile 

 

This insight into the Purim has much to teach us about the importance of Torah devotion in our current exile, living in 21st century America, when spiritual challenges abound.  But additionally, it is instructive regarding the personal “exiles” that we often experience. 

 

Some periods of life, and some circumstances, are conducive to religious commitment.  There are times when we find ourselves easily and naturally drawn to study, pray and fulfill the mitzvot, when we encounter few obstacles and challenges, when Torah classes and minyanim fit well into our schedule, and, in general, conditions are favorable for studying and observing.  But, as we all know, there are times when learning Torah and fulfilling mitzvot prove challenging.  Attending classes and minyanim sometimes requires shuffling our packed schedule.  Shabbat and holidays can get in the way of our work, and even affect our income.  When we feel hurt or offended, we are tempted to lose our cool and say things we shouldn’t.  Technology presents us with many lures and distractions.  And, there are times when we just aren’t “in the mood,” when we don’t feel inspired or motivated to put in the effort that Torah observance demands, or to make the sacrifices that Torah observance entails. 

 

The story of Purim is, among other things, the story of reaffirming religious commitment even when it isn’t easy.  It teaches us that even “baderech,” when we find ourselves spiritually challenged, we have what it takes to overcome the obstacles and remain steadfastly loyal to Hashem.  It teaches us that we cannot limit our observance to situations in which it is convenient, and to times when we feel driven to fulfill the mitzvot.  Even when we feel tempted to attend “Ahashverosh’s party,” to go to places where we shouldn’t go, or watch things we shouldn’t watch, we can overcome this temptation and desist.  Even when we are not in the mood to pray or learn, we can push ourselves to do so anyway.   

 

The circumstances of the Jews in Persia were not very conducive to Torah commitment, and they began slipping.  But then, in response to Haman’s decree, they reaffirmed their loyalty – setting for us an example that we must follow, an example of religious observance even when we feel disinterested or unmotivated.  We do not have to be “in the mood” in order to learn and practice the Torah – we need instead to believe in our capacity to serve Gd even under unfavorable conditions, and strengthen our resolve to remain devoted under all circumstances, just like our ancestors in Persia. 

 

Fighting Today’s Battles 

 

Over the last several months, the Jewish Nation has found itself waging a difficult battle on several different fronts.  Our brothers and sisters in Israel are fighting against bloodthirsty terrorists to the south and north, defending themselves against both the terrorists and the bad actors on the world stage hypocritically condemning Israel in the name of “human rights.”  Tragically, Israel’s war on terror has claimed hundreds of soldiers’ lives, in addition to the precious lives lost on October 7th.  Here in the Diaspora, antisemitism has risen alarmingly, to levels we haven’t seen in many decades. 

 

It is perhaps no coincidence that these assaults from the modern-day “Amalekites” occur at a time of unprecedented exposure to foreign culture and values.  We might not be exaggerating if we say that our nation is more “baderech” now that at any other time in our long history.  Technology has made it all but impossible to shield ourselves from beliefs, values and lifestyles that run in direct opposition to ours.  At all times, we are bombarded by the ideas and the culture of the society around us.  We are spiritually fragile – just like the Jews were at the time of the Purim story – and so we are especially vulnerable to the attacks of the “Hamans” of today. 

 

Gd has blessed us with a remarkably powerful and advanced military, with courageous soldiers committed to do anything it takes to defend the Jewish State, with world leaders who have lent their general support for Israel’s operations, and with leaders fighting the scourge of antisemitism.  And we must do our part by lending whatever assistance we can – financial or practical – to those waging this war on the ground.  Additionally, however, we must be aware of the spiritual struggle that we must wage in our effort to defeat our enemies.  On this front, too, Gd has been kind to us – providing us with so many opportunities for spiritual growth.  Proportional to the spiritual threat posed by modern technology are the vast spiritual opportunities offered by modern technology.  Torah study has never been more accessible.  Hesed has never before been possible on as large scales as it is today.  And, just as Gd has given us outstanding, courageous soldiers capable of eliminating terrorists, He has blessed us with wonderful and inspiring rabbis and educators who lead the battle against the spiritual threats that we face. 

 

The Purim celebration is our annual reminder that our enemies are powerless against us, that Hashem will always ensure our continued survival.  This is true of those who seek our physical destruction, but also of the cultural forces that threaten to pull us away from our spiritual heritage.  Purim reminds us to trust in our power to overcome any challenge we confront, in our ability to surmount every obstacle that stands in the way of spiritual greatness.  Let us harness this power and resolve to fearlessly wage the struggles that we face, and cling to our sacred heritage despite the societal pressures that try tearing us away.