A Tale of Two Masks: The Masks of Purim and the Masks of Covid

Last week, our editor, Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, wrote eloquently about, among other things, Jewish achdus and Purim. I would like to continue the theme in light of the masks of Purim and the masks of Covid-19.

Rav Yonasan David, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Pachad Yitzchok (Mesibos Purim, Inyan 8:7) points out that according to Chazal (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:2), there is a natural human contradiction to absolute achdus and unity: Just as partzufeihem (their faces) are not identical, so are deioseihem (their opinions) not identical. The question therefore arises: How do we achieve the ideal of oneness in any group of individuals, let alone an entire nation? Yet, we find that Klal Yisroel rested at Mattan Torah as “one man with one heart” (Shemos 19:2, with Rashi). Furthermore, when we reaccepted the Torah on Purim, the singular vekibeil (Megillas Esther 9:23) was used, indicating the totality of our unity (See Gr”a on Megillas Esther). How was this achieved?

Rav David pithily explains that when all faces are covered by masks, the partzufeihem problem is solved. Well, what about the deioseihem issue? That, too, disappears when there is no daas at all, as in ad delo yoda. However, the greatest unity is achieved, the rosh yeshiva concludes, when each individual’s daas is subsumed under that of the greater nation. That is the best avenue toward achieving solidarity – when the soul of each and every Jew merges with every other.

We may add that when there are no personal vendettas or individual attitudes, no animus or bias, then and only then is the nation as one. But how in fact was this achieved on Purim and how can it be replicated today?

On the one hand, we could suggest that a common danger can bring the nation together. When everyone is in the same foxhole – because, for instance, Haman has decided to “exterminate, murder and destroy every all the Jews…” (Esther 3:6) – perhaps we are unified. However, undoubtedly, this is too simplistic. Surely, as we shall soon recite in the Haggadah, “in every generation they arise against us to destroy us.” and yet we do not always coalesce into absolute oneness.

To be sure, many of our early meforshim point out that Haman’s diatribe against Klal Yisroel was subtly worded to accuse us before Hashem of a lack of this very middah. He alleged that “there is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed…” (Esther 3:8). The Shelah Hakadosh (Drush for Shabbos Hagadol) interprets this to mean that Haman accused us of being splintered amongst ourselves and lacking in unity. How did Mordechai and Esther counteract this lashon hara from our mortal enemy?

Let us listen carefully to the words of Rav Yom Tov Lipman Heller, author of the Tosafos Yom Tov. He explains why Rabbeinu Hakadosh ended his monumental Mishnayos with the immortal words, “Hakadosh Boruch Hu found no more appropriate vessel with which to hold brocha except that of peace.” He expounds: “He wished to sweeten the impression and arouse the heart to understand that although the Mishnayos are replete with disagreements amongst the sages, one should not think for a moment that this is the result of personal animosity or rancor. This is not the case at all, for the Torah is the embodiment of peace and harmony. This can be understood in light of the sages’ statement (Kiddushin 36b) that when Torah scholars argue about the Torah, they appear to be enemies, but, in actuality, they love each other totally.”

With the Tosafos Yom Tov’s insight, we can understand that the true path to Jewish unity is what is often called the “war of the Torah.” The ostensible arguments and debates are in reality the profound joint searching for the ultimate truth in each word, sentence and teaching of the Torah.

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Chanukah 3:4), raised the issue that the ancient Greeks tried to make us forget the Torah. It would seem, G-d forbid, that they succeeded at least somewhat. The concept of machlokes – religious disagreement – came about during the Greek exile because often the original halacha was forgotten and machlokes arose. Doesn’t that mean that the Yevonim triumphed?

He answered that the exact opposite is true. With the help of Hashem, we took the enemy’s weapon and turned it into an expansion of the Torah. Where before there was only one opinion, now there were two, but since both were created under the guidelines of Torah argumentation, with the thirteen principles of Torah hermeneutics, in holiness and purity, both Shamai and Hillel, Abaye and Rava, the Rambam and the Raavad, the Mechaber and the Rama became part and parcel of Torah truth.

The same happened on Purim. The physical result of the Megillah was that we were saved and rescued from Haman’s evil machinations. But the result of our spiritual renaissance was that we accepted the Torah once again, this time out of love (Shabbos 88a), not under the coercion of a mountain above us. When Klal Yisroel unites to accept the Torah in a new way, the transformation makes us one, because we no longer have any personal agenda at all. It is only to understand more fully, to plumb more deeply, to become more holy and pure. Even when this results in a Torah Shebaal Peh which seems defined by contention and disputation, it represents the ultimate unity, because we love each other through every shout and strongly enunciated opinion.

I remember hearing a story about a Modern Orthodox institution that felt politically compelled to give a tour of its bais medrash to several leaders of other religions. The visitors were puzzled by the cacophony of sounds emerging from the young men learning Torah. “Why are they all shouting at each other?” one puzzled clergyman inquired. Their guide explained, “They are arguing about an ancient Talmudic text and the opinion of Maimonides and other medieval scholars.” The group fell silent until their own senior member remarked, “These people will survive long after our teachings have been forgotten. We don’t ever have the zeal, passion or ardor about any of our traditions that these young men have every single day.”

Sometimes it takes the threat of extinction, G-d forbid, to remind us who we really are, what matters to us the most and what defines us as a nation.

I had a personal epiphany last Thursday related to these words. The Wolfson family sponsors a wonderful worldwide program called Olami, which introduces young man of varied backgrounds to Torah study. Several months ago, our shul hosted one of these experiences, pairing each one of these visitors from all over the world with a chavrusah to learn a sugya. We did it again last week, followed by a spirited kumzitz led by Rabbis Reich and Horowitz of Olami. I was asked to speak and, as often happens, “ba lelamed venimtza lameid – I came to teach and ended up learning.” We learned the Gemara (Shabbos 88a) together mentioned above that on Purim, Klal Yisroel accepted the Torah lovingly, not out of fear as happened at Mattan Torah. Rashi says that we accepted the Torah out of ahavas haneis, love of the miracle. My question to them was: “What is love of a miracle?” It would seem that a miracle should result in being impressed or amazed, but love?

My suggested answer was that the purpose of a miracle is not to prove anything or cause amazement. It is arouse the heart to change. It is rearrange one’s molecules and bring about new directions and commitments.

During the next round of singing, a young man came over and thanked me for changing his life. My reaction was actually incredulous. “What did I say?” He explained that he was bothered since he began learning about all the miracles mentioned in the Torah. “I’ve never seen any of them and I was not sure I really believed. But you taught me today that miracles are for bringing about love, not for being impressed. I’m ready now to take the next step. Thank you.”

I was flabbergasted. How many of us – I certainly include myself – are changed by a few words at an event? How many of us take something so to heart that we will be different the next day and the day after that? This young man taught me how to shed the Covid mask of fear and protection and don the Purim mask of joining the nation and submitting to the will Hashem.

I presume no prophesy or understanding of celestial events. But now that we know that this pandemic began on Purim and returns this year with the world still wearing masks, there must be some connection. As Rav David taught us, a mask removes the superficial divisions amongst us. There are no partzufim. Then, when we accept a common purpose and even disagreements melt into mutual love, we can overcome Haman’s lies with the power of truth and absolute unity. Although some people have already shed their Covid masks, others are actually wearing two. This Purim, let’s remember to become one with our brethren around the world with no agenda other than to love them and daven for them. Even when we disagree with someone, let’s do it with achdus and a hearty lechayim to the eternal life of Klal Yisroel.