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Days of Deliverance: Essays on Purim and Hanukkah

Days of Deliverance: Essays on Purim and Hanukkah

by Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Joel B. Wolowelsky, Reuven Ziegler, Eli D. Clark

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KTAV Publishing House, Inc.
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6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

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Essays on Purim and Hanukkah
By Joseph B. Soloveitchik

KTAV Publishing House, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Toras HoRav Foundation
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-88125-944-6

Chapter One

The Duality of Purim

I would like to try to develop a metaphysic of Purim, an understanding of the holiday's underlying principles. This endeavor sounds self-contradictory: Purim is a day of gaiety, while the development of a "metaphysic" is inherently serious. Purim and seriousness are, prima facie, mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, let us investigate Purim, beginning from the halakhic viewpoint.

The Dual Nature of the Megillah

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: One is obligated to read the Megillah in the evening and to read it a second time in the morning; as it is said (Ps. 22:3), "O my God, I call by day but You answer not, and at night and there is no surcease for me" ...

We have also learned: Rabbi Helbo said in the name of Ulla of Biri: One is obligated to read the Megillah in the evening and to read it a second time in the morning; as it is said (Ps. 30:13), "So that my glory may sing praise to You, and not be silent; O Lord my God, I will give thanks unto You forever" (Megillah 4a).

We have two identical rulings, but two contradictory reasons. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and Ulla formulated the same law, but quoted two mutually exclusive verses.

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi quoted a versefrom Psalm 22, the famous prayer of an individual in distress, forsaken and abandoned: "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" This psalm reflects the cry of total despair, the shriek of a frightened, lonely child who has suddenly discovered that his or her mother is gone. According to our tradition, Esther recited this psalm on her way to the inner court of Ahasuerus. In a word, it is the psalm of a person who has lost almost all hope and, out of the depths of despair, petitions the Almighty. From this psalm, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi inferred that one must read the Megillah at night as well as in the daytime, for the prayer of the lonely, forsaken person is without pause or stop. He cannot help himself but pray.

In other words, the reading of the Megillah was equated by Rabbi Joshua ben Levi with the offering of a prayer to the Almighty from the straits of distress, addressing a petition to Him from the depths of agony and misery.

Rabbi Helbo in the name of Ulla introduced a verse from Psalm 30, the jubilant psalm of dedication ("A psalm and song at the dedication of the house"). This psalm of thanksgiving, of a sick individual miraculously cured, overflows with gratitude: "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning" (Ps. 30:6). He does not just thank the Almighty; he sings to Him an incessant hymn of praise, day and night. Therefore, Ulla concluded, one must recite the Megillah in the evening and also in the morning. In other words, Ulla identified the reading of the Megillah with the offering of praise and thanks to the Almighty. The Megillah, according to Ulla, is a great song of gratitude, for it is good to sing praise to the Lord. In fact, Rabbi Nahman's famous statement, "The reading [of the Megillah] is to be equated with the recital of Hallel" (Megillah 14a), confirms Ulla's opinion.

Of course, the question arises: what is the Megillah? According to Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, the Megillah is a book of human sorrow and misery, the cry of the lonely person to the Almighty. According to Ulla, the reading of the Megillah is a jubilant song of thanksgiving and praise, of a person cured and redeemed by the Almighty. Which one is the correct understanding?

The answer is simple: both characterizations are correct. The Megillah contains two stories: the story of human happiness and fulfillment, as well as the story of human misery and distress. The reading of the Megillah is a dialectical performance. We pray to the Almighty while we read the Megillah, because we are in distress; we thank God and relate His wonders while we read the Megillah, for we have found refuge in Him; He has saved us.

Two Facets of Purim

Consequently, the whole character of Purim changes. It is not just, as people assume, a day of hilarious feasting, drinking, merrymaking, and gaiety to the extent of self-forgetfulness, a day associated with the famous statement in the Talmud, "One is obligated to become inebriated on Purim until he cannot distinguish between 'Cursed be Haman' and 'Blessed be Mordecai'" (Megillah 7b). Purim is also a day of meditation, introspection, and serious self-examination.

The mystics, speaking of the five letters of Purim which occur also in Yom Kippurim, say this signifies a common denominator between the two festivals. One day is the most hilarious and noisy, and the other is the most solemn, awesome, and fear-inspiring. Yet a strange equation has been formulated by the mystics: Yom Kippurim = Purim + Ki. No wonder that some of the Geonim advised that the Tahanun prayer be recited on Purim, because Purim is a day of supplication and petition (Seder Ray Amram Gaon, II, 72).

As a matter of fact, the whole institution of the Fast of Esther rests upon this very dichotomy inherent in the festival of Purim, upon the paradoxical halakhic requirement that Purim be observed both as a day of prayer and as a day of joyous celebration. Since it is impossible to comply with this paradoxical requirement, the Rabbis advanced the observance of the prayer aspect of Purim to the thirteenth of Adar.

The serious, prayerful mood, the frequent cry or shriek accompanying the communal fast, the recital of Selihot or the reading of Avinu Malkenu-these belong, and are closely related, to the very observance of Purim. The Fast of Esther is not to be treated as an extraneous addendum to Purim. It is a genuine Purim day on which the words of the Psalmist are translated literally into a liturgical reality: "O my God, I call by day but You answer not, and at night and there is no surcease for me" (Ps. 22:3). There is a passional experience involved in the whole drama of Purim.

Then Esther the queen ... wrote with all emphasis ... To confirm these days of Purim in their times appointed, according as Mordecai the Jew and Esther the queen had decreed upon them, and as they had decreed for themselves and for their seed, with regard to the fastings and the order of lamentation (9:29, 31).

The decree to observe Purim in the manner in which Mordecai and Esther observed it entailed the acceptance of two commitments: to observe Purim with celebration and gaiety, and also to observe it as a fast day.

The Vulnerability of Man

How can Purim encompass two contradictory aspects? We can reformulate the question: On what metaphysical facet is this dialectic of Purim based?

The answer is to be found in the human situation. Man is a frightened being-not frightened psychologically, but ontologically, existentially. Man is full of anxiety, which is a result of his greatness; he is frightened because he is great. He possesses faculties that have been denied to other creatures, and those unique faculties are the source of his fears and his unhappiness.

Man is great and singular because he is capable of living in three realities at the same time. First, he can live in the reality of memory, accompanied by the melancholy awareness of things and people long gone. Second, he can live in the reality of the present, the reality that he can apprehend with his five senses. However, man can also live in a third reality, the reality of anticipation, where existence is equated with expectancy or tension, where man is confronted by the unknown and the frightening.

"What does the future hold in store?" man asks himself, without being able to answer this persistent question. The beast is mortal, just as man is; in fact, the lifespan of the animal is usually much shorter than that of man. However, the beast does not know the meaning of death. It possesses neither biographical memory nor the psychic capability of anticipating events. Man has this capacity. Man is an anticipatory being, and is therefore an unhappy being, insecure and frightened. In a word, man is vulnerable. He is exposed to the absurd, to what Aristotle characteristically called "accident" (sumbebêkos) and Maimonides strikingly called keri (Guide of the Perplexed III:36). Man is exposed to, at best, an indifferent destiny. Moreover, he is aware of his vulnerability and steady exposure.

Vulnerability is mentioned especially in two books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes and Psalms. Thus did Ecclesiastes define human vulnerabilities: "For man knows not his time, as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; even so are the sons of man snared in an evil time, when it falls suddenly upon them" (Eccl. 9:12). The emphasis should be placed on the word "suddenly" (pit'om) When fate strikes, it strikes unexpectedly. Not always does sickness announce its coming, God forbid, through pain, nor does a violent economic or political change always warn people in advance.

Human Vulnerability as the Basis of Prayer

There is a halakhic conclusion to be drawn from the vulnerability of man, particularly the sudden change that occurs in his life, the unexpected blow, the surprise attack. The halakhic factor that engenders the obligation to pray, the mehayyev, is need, human need. Without human need, prayer would be an impossibility.

While the mystical view of prayer, for instance, placed the emphasis upon praise and thanksgiving, Judaism placed the accent upon petitional prayer, the so-called selfish, egotistical prayer; and that prayer is the result of need. If there is no need, if a man feels happy and satisfied-that all his needs have been gratified-there is no need for prayer; indeed, he should not pray. Then every benediction would be a benediction for naught, a berakhah le-vatalah. If man prays three times daily, it is because he is in constant need. Why is man in constant need? Because he is vulnerable.

Even if one is healthy, he prays, "Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed." Why should I petition God for healing? I don't need any medical help. But I know not how I will feel five minutes hence. A very rich man, a millionaire, asks God that He provide him with a livelihood. Why? The man knows nothing about the following day, about the morrow.

If we take into consideration human vulnerability, we must arrive at one conclusion. There is no complete redemption. Of course, "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning" (Ps. 30:6). At night man was in distress; in the morning he woke up and found himself free, breathing the clear air of God's boundless spaces. Yet, what his fate will be the next morning he does not know. Vulnerability is the great tragic experience of man.

Therefore, the halakhic division of prayer into three parts-praise, petition, and thanksgiving-is a relative one. The division is not absolute. There is no service completely dedicated to praise and thanksgiving, to Hallel, nor is there pure petition. When the Halakhah speaks of praise, it does so in a qualified manner. There is no thanksgiving that does not contain petition. Because no matter how great the miracle was, there is no promise given to man that a catastrophic event, a disastrous event, will not recur. Every song of glory must willy-nilly end in supplication. The song of joy coming from the liberated, happy man is ipso facto a cry coming from a frightened man.

In fact, the Hallel service, the exalted song of joy, consists of two parts: praise and thanksgiving, on the one hand, and prayer and petition, on the other. For instance, Psalms 113 ("Hallelujah! Give praise, O servants of the Lord") and 114 ("When Israel went out of Egypt") belong to the category of praise and thanksgiving. But others, like Psalm 115 ("Not to us, O Lord, not to us") or 116 ("I love the Lord Who hears my voice"), like the famous refrain, "Save us, O Lord, we pray You," represent petition and supplication. It is strange. Just minutes before, I was singing a great triumphant song of triumph-"When Israel went out of Egypt"-and now I see myself forsaken and forgotten; I appeal for help from the Almighty: "Save us, O Lord, we pray You"-help me because I am lonely, I am lost. To recite Hallel means to sing and to cry at the same time. It is, of course, paradoxical, but we are a paradoxical people, and this paradoxicality is a part of our liturgy.

No wonder Purim is both a day of joyous celebration and a day of prayer and meditation; no wonder the reading of the Megillah is equated with the recital of praise as well as with the offering of petition and prayers. Of course, the miracle was great, staggering, defying human imagination. The person who was supposed to be executed on the gallows was suddenly promoted to the office of viceroy, and the people who were doomed to total annihilation suddenly emerged victorious. No doubt that this event deserved to be recorded for posterity, to be remembered and celebrated. That is why the reading of the Megillah was ordained and Purim declared as a day of joy and gladness.

However, if circumstances and events can change so quickly, literally overnight, if a prime minister who just yesterday enjoyed the full confidence and trust of the king was suddenly convicted and executed, then who is wise and clairvoyant enough to assure us that the same unreasonable, absurd, neurotic change of mood and mind will not repeat itself? Where is the fortuneteller who could assert or assure us that Ahasuerus will not replace Queen Esther with another fair woman, that he will not do to Esther exactly what he did to Vashti?

The Megillah is the book of the vulnerability of man in general and specifically of the vulnerability of the Jew. The events recorded in the Megillah are nonsensical. A king signs away the lives of hundreds of thousands of people without even inquiring about their identity. Three or four days later, he denies the whole story. He does not remember that such an edict was ever signed and sealed and that Haman was responsible for it. Can such a king be relied upon? Purim could not have been introduced just as a festival, a day of merrymaking. Purim had to be set up as a dual holiday, dual in character and dual in manner of observance. Where did the Jew experience the most absurd vulnerability if not in Shushan?

The Moral and Halakhic Implications of Human Vulnerability

The vulnerability of man is more than just a tragic truth; it is an ethical-halakhic postulate. The awareness of vulnerability, of being exposed, engenders many ethical virtues, among which the most important is humility. Man must practice humility; pride and vanity are both degrading and corrupting. Humility is perhaps the highest ethical virtue-Maimonides even suspended the rule of the golden mean vis-à-vis humility, writing that one must be "of exceedingly humble and lowly spirit" (Hilkhot Debt 2:3).

Why should man be modest, shy, humble? Particularly, why should successful man be humble? He has the right, prima facie, to be proud of himself, to be arrogant toward those who have failed in life. In fact, man is inclined to be arrogant, to be impudent and aggressive. He is inclined to reach for things that are above and beyond his legitimate reach. Human arrogance is, of course, the consequence of victory; the feelings of self-assurance and self-righteousness that accompany success result in pride and arrogance. However, human pride and arrogance disappear the very moment man becomes aware of his vulnerability and of the suddenness with which fortune changes. In other words, the awareness of human vulnerability is cathartic, cleansing; it is an awareness that ennobles man and has a redemptive impact upon him. Humility is the expression of that awareness.

Humility is not only a moral virtue; it is a good practical rule. We read in the Megillah:

And Mordecai walked every day before the court of the women's house, to know how Esther did, and what would become of her (2:11).


Excerpted from DAYS OF DELIVERANCE by Joseph B. Soloveitchik Copyright © 2007 by Toras HoRav Foundation. Excerpted by permission.
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