Do we relish the opportunity to do mitzvot, or do we treat them like…tax returns?
Purim is a great day of joy and festivity, but there seems to be just one problem with it: It’s celebrated on the wrong day!
Of course, this is not intended literally. If our Sages enacted celebrating Purim on the 14th of Adar, then this is the correct date. But when we take a careful look at the story told in Megilat Ester, we have good reason to wonder why.
Commemorating a Miraculous War
As we all know, Haman wanted to annihilate the Jews, drew lots to determine the date, and received the king’s permission to kill every Jew in the Persian Empire on the 13th of Adar. This happened 11 months earlier, during the month of Nissan. Gd foiled Haman’s scheme by making Ester the queen already before Haman entered onto the scene. Ester petitioned Ahashverosh, Haman was hung, end of story.
Actually – no, this is not the end of the story. Not even close. Although Haman was executed, the Jews were still in danger. His edict was issued with the royal signet, and according to Persian law, laws signed by the king’s stamp could not be repealed. Ester pleaded with Ahashverosh, and Ahashverosh authorized her and Mordechai to issue new decrees to help the Jews, so they decreed that the Jews were granted permission to defend themselves on the 13th of Adar. In the interim, the Jews prepared themselves for battle, and when the 13th of Adar came, they observed a fast, prayed for Gd’s help, and went out to war. The outcome was astonishing. The Megilah (9:16) tells that the Jews killed 75,000 people (!!!) during the single day of battle, plus 800 in the city of Shushan (over the course of two days).
These events, which do not generally receive much attention, are remarkable. As the Megilah (9:1) states, “Venahafoch hu” – everything was turned upside down. The Jews, who had always been the victims of persecution and forced to fear for their lives, suddenly found themselves in the position of the powerful nation subduing its adversaries. This is no less a miracle than Ester’s “coincidentally” becoming queen in advance of Haman’s edict. The battle waged on the 13th of Adar was miraculous, a resounding and a decisive victory achieved by a nation in exile that less than a year earlier faced annihilation.
Later in the Megilah, we read that Mordechai and Ester instituted that this great miracle be commemorated each year through the Purim festivities, which are held on…the 14th of Adar. We celebrate Purim not on the day of the miraculous war, but rather on the day afterthe miraculous war. As the Megilah tells, the 14th of Adar was the day when the Jews “rested” and celebrated after their successful military campaign, and this was the day chosen for the annual Purim celebration. Surprisingly, we celebrate not on the day of the miracle, but on the day after the miracle.
(It should be noted that the Jews of Shushan waged battle for two days – the 13th and the 14th – and rested on the 15th. In commemoration, it was established that cities with walls, which resemble Shushan, celebrate Purim on the 15th of Adar, and this is why Purim is celebrated in Jerusalem on the 15th.)
Why was Purim established on the 14th? Would it not have been more appropriate to commemorate the Jews’ miraculous victory on the 13th, the day when it occurred?
The answer to this question lies in a deeper understanding of the “rest” experienced by the Jews of that time on the 14th of Adar.
The Ongoing Struggle Against Amalek
Our tradition teaches that every nation here on Earth has a corresponding angel in the heavens, from which they derive their power and force. (The only exception is the Jewish people, who are under Gd’s direct protection and supervision, and thus do not require any angels.) The most famous of all these angels is the yetzer hara– the evil inclination within each and every one of us – and it serves as the heavenly emissary of one of the most infamous nations.
Haman is referred to in the Megilah as “Haman the Aggagite,” because he descended from the wicked nation of Amalek, which was led by a king named Aggag. Amalek was the first nation to launch an attack upon Beneh Yisraelafter the Exodus, a story which we read, appropriately enough, as the Torah reading on Purim morning. After the miracles of the Exodus, the nations were terrified of Beneh Yisrael, until Amalek came and initiated a war against us, seeing to expose our vulnerability. After Beneh Yisrael’s miraculous victory, Gd proclaimed that He wages an eternal battle against Amalek, and commanded us to eradicate the nation of Amalek from the face of the earth.
Rabbi Moshe Alshich (Tzefat, 16th century) commented that Amalek’s heavenly angel is the yetzer hara. The wicked nation, which dared to attack Gd’s special nation just weeks after the Exodus, is represented by the wicked angel which works relentlessly to lead us to sin and betray our Creator. And thus we are able to fulfill the mitzvahof eradicating Amalek each and every day of our lives, even though the nation of Amalek disappeared millennia ago. Whenever we wage war against our evil inclination – every time we overcome temptation and withdraw from sinful behavior; every time we overcome our natural laziness and get out of bed to pray; every time we overcome our egotistical instincts and help someone in need; every time we feel angry but manage to forgive – we have fulfilled this mitzvah. We have dealt a harsh blow to the yetzer hara, the spiritual angel of Amalek. The battle against Amalek thus never ends, because the yetzer haranever relents, and we bear an ongoing obligation to fight back.
The “Amalek Effect”
Understanding the precise nature of Amalek’s assault will help us understand the strategy employed by its heavenly representative, thus helping us devise a counter strategy.
When Moshe Rabbenu recalls Amalek’s audacious assault in the Book of Devarim (25:17-19), he describes how Amalek “cooled you along the road” (“asher karecha baderech”). When Beneh Yisraelleft and Egypt and crossed the sea, there was an overwhelming feeling of excitement and awe. They had experienced something unprecedented and extraordinary, and they were inspired and overcome by spiritual fervor. Amalek came and “cooled” this excitement. Moshe thus describes how Beneh Yisraelwere “ayef veyage’a– tired and weary.” Amalek knocked them down from the heights of spiritual euphoria and enthusiasm to a state of lethargy. They lost the excitement and energy that had characterized them until then.
This is the most potent and effective strategy employed by the yetzer hara– to make religious observance boring, unappealing, ordinary, pedestrian, and onerous. We are “believers, children of believers,” and so the yetzer haragenerally will not try telling us that mitzvotare unimportant or pointless. Instead, it finds a way to make them difficult, inconvenient, and a drain.
Here in the United States, we unfortunately see the success of this strategy. The Jewish immigrants to this country had to make immense sacrifices to observe Shabbat. Saturday was an ordinary workday, and many Jews were given the choice of either working on Shabbat or finding a new job on Monday. Those who overcame this difficult challenge are heroes, and worthy of our utmost respect and admiration, but their heroism exacted a heavy toll. Rav Moshe Feinstein, the great leader of American Jewry in post-War America, observed that these men would sit down to Friday night dinner with a groan. They made great sacrifices for Shabbat, but not all of them were able to do so without feeling drained and worn by the understandable anxiety and stress that this situation caused. And these feelings of anguish did not go unnoticed by their impressionable children. Seeing the aggravation caused by their parents’ adherence to Shabbat, the children were turned off. Their weekend experiences taught them that Shabbat is a source of anguish, not a source of joy and elevation. Consequently, they wanted no part of it. Rav Moshe attributed the widespread neglect of Shabbat observance among American Jewry to this unfortunate set of circumstances.
Just as a plant needs water and sunlight to grow, spiritual growth requires excitement, enthusiasm, rigor and passion. When we do a mitzvah like we are writing a check to the IRS, it has an effect on ourselves, our children, and the people around us. Let us not fool ourselves. Our children watch the way we go to shul in the morning, and they notice if we look at our watches excitedly and eagerly run to the House of Gd, or if we leave dispassionately or reluctantly. They watch the way we recite birkat hamazon, and notice if we say the words slowly with sincere gratitude to Hashem, or if we rush through them to move on to our next activity. They watch our body language as we give charity to somebody at the door, and they know how to translate that language into “It’s my pleasure to help,” or “Here’s some money, now get out.” We make an impression not just by what we do, but by the way we do it.
And this, the Sefat Emetwrites, is precisely the battle which we must continuously wage against the spiritual “Amalek,” the wily yetzer harawhich does everything it can to make religious life uninteresting, and turn our beautiful Torah into tax returns – something we do only out of necessity.
Hacham Ovadia Yosef’s Needles
The question then becomes, how do we fight back? After all, the yetzer harahas a valid point – Torah observance is often quite demanding and restrictive. How can we maintain the necessary level of excitement and enthusiasm when adhering to so many laws and fulfilling so many obligations?
A number of years ago, before one of my trips to Israel, I was astonished to receive a call from the office of Hacham Ovadia Yosef, zt”l. The hacham, who suffered from diabetes, needed special needles brought from New York, and I was asked to bring them for him. It is not hard to imagine my reaction. I was euphoric. What an honor it was for me to do a personal favor for the leading Torah sage of our generation, for one of the greatest human repositories of Torah the world has ever seen!
When I left Ben Gurion airport, I headed straight to the hacham’s house. I did not stop at my hotel or the Kotel. If I was carrying Hacham Ovadia Yosef’s needles, I was not going anywhere else before getting them to him. When I arrived at his building, there was a large crowd of people waiting to go inside to meet with the rabbi. When I explained to them that I was there to do the hacham a personal favor, everyone made way for me. I showed the needles to the people in charge, and I was ushered right in to the hacham’s room. Just by carrying needles, I was treated as though I was somebody special – because this was being done as a personal favor to one of the greatest men alive.
If we could multiply this feeling of elation which I experienced at that time to the millionth power, we would still not come even close to the joy we should, at least in principle, experience upon doing a “favor” for Gd. The King of the entire universe, in relation to whom even the greatest human beings are less than microscopic, has selected each and every one of us to do Him certain “favors.” Of course, He did not need our favors – but this only makes mitzvotan even greater privilege. He does not need us for anything, and yet He asks us to do certain things so we can draw close to Him. What a fantastic privilege! I am not saying this is easy, but we should feel overjoyed every time we do even the simplest, most “minor” mitzvot. If bringing needles for Hacham Ovadia is exciting, why shouldn’t every mitzvah be exciting?
A person once came to the Hazon Ish and asked how he could generate within himself enthusiasm and passion for mitzvot.The sage remarked that it is worth coming into this world and enduring all the suffering experienced by Iyov in order to put on tefillinjust once. We put on tefillinevery morning, six days a week. Shouldn’t that be exciting? Gd has come specifically to us and asked us to do something. What could possibly be a greater privilege than that?
The Real of Kabbalat HaTorah
The Talmud teaches that in the wake of the Purim miracle, the Jews of the time reaffirmed their kabbalat haTorah– their formal acceptance of the Torah. Our ancestors first accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai, as we commemorate on Shavuot, but there is a fundamental difference between the acceptance at Sinai and the acceptance in Persia. At Sinai, Gd forced the Torah upon us, suspending the mountain over our heads and threatening to kill us if we did not commit ourselves to His will. This kabbalat haTorahwas thus characterized by a sense of obligation and responsibility. After the Purim miracle, however, the Jews proclaimed a much different type of commitment – a commitment borne out of genuine joy. In response to the miracles they had just experienced, they were overcome by love for Hashem and a passionate desire to fulfill His will. They rid themselves of all negativity, and resolved to serve Gd with vitality and exuberance.
As mentioned earlier, the Megillah describes the Jews as “resting” on the 14th of Adar. After the miracles of the previous day, they enjoyed spiritual “rest,” peace of mind and contentment. They felt the joy of religious observance, the beauty of religious life and the gratification that only Torah and mitzvotcan provide. Religion was no longer boring or inconvenient; it was magnificent and a source of joy.
On the 13th of Adar, the Jews destroyed the physical Amalek, but on the 14th, they accomplished something far more significant – they destroyed the spiritual Amalek, the negativity and fatigue that threatens our devotion to Torah. And thus the real victory was on the 14th, and this is when we celebrate.
Many years ago, I was walking out of my kollel and a young man I knew saw me. We began talking, and he asked me how I was able to spend the entire day poring over complex, intricate, ancient texts.
“Imagine a child walks into a candy store in the morning and spends the day helping himself to the goodies on the shelves,” I told him. “It would not surprise us in the least that he spent a whole day doing that. This is what we’re doing in kollel. We’re spending the day grabbing ‘candies’ – words of Torah – and enjoying them.” Baruch Hashem, this youngster grew to become a Torah scholar, and years later he mentioned this brief conversation as the source of his desire to learn.
The joy of Purim is about the joy of Torah. It is supposed to rekindle the fire and passion for Hashem and His mitzvot, and inject within us the energy to get up early for Daf Yomi with the same enthusiasm with which we get up for an early flight to Florida for vacation. We should perform mitzvot the way we eat candy, not the way we file our taxes. This is our weapon in the ongoing battle against Amalek, which ensures our ability to remain loyal and devoted to Gd and transmit this same loyalty to our children and grandchildren.