Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Afilu Behatzlachah

I was recently sitting with some people and, as has happened so often in recent months, someone started singing the very popular niggun, Ve'afilu Behastarah. The moving words and tune never fail to soften the heart, providing a jolt of chizuk and emunah, a reminder that Hashem is always in control.

A learned Yerushalmi Yid, the sort who seems to be equipped with a perpetual supply of joyful comments and uplifting remarks, was among those sitting there. He took issue with the words. “Farvoss nisht ve’afilu sheloi behastarah?” he asked. “Why are people singing that Hashem is found even in the hidden? Sing that He is ever-present! Even when things are going good, remember that it is a gift from Hashem!”

The Chassidic song seeks to reinforce the reality that even in times of darkness and concealment, Hashem is with us. It seeks to remind us that each nisayon is ordained for us and that nothing occurs by happenstance. Even when our situation is critical, we are not to forsake hope and faith, because what we are seeing is not the whole story.

As people of faith, we believe that the times of darkness are an illusion. Struggles present a false image. There is a story behind the story. Everything transpires for a greater purpose. Things are rarely as they appear to be. At times, Hashem is in a position of hester, hidden from our view, but we need to know that even when He is hidden, He is present.

The hester is itself a hester, a mask covering a mask.

As Purim is upon us, I remembered the man’s comment, because, essentially, the song of Ve’afilu Behastarah and its message are the song and message of Purim.

On the first Purim after emerging from the abyss of suffering that consumed most of his family, community and Chassidus, the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum zt”l, called out, “It was worth enduring the pain of the war in order to be able to experience one more Purim, one more krias megillah.”

The Rebbe’s inspiring comment begs explanation. Why was Purim and Megillas Esther singled out? What about the other mitzvos? Did meriting to perform every daily, weekly, Shabbos and Yom Tov-related mitzvah one more time not make life worth living?

Perhaps we can understand that the Rebbe selected this mitzvah in order to make a point.

We live in a world of hester, to be sure. But hester isn’t the reality. Imagine when a blackout strikes. Your home is plunged into darkness, electronic appliances sit useless, and light is provided by a few small candles and fading flashlights. During the summer, there is no relief from the heat, and during the winter, there is no relief from the cold.

However, while experiencing a blackout, no one panics or worries about the future, because they know that the power company is aware of the problem and, sooner or later, power will be restored. In fact, some might even enjoy the power outage. With the flashlights and candles for light, the extra blankets and sweatshirts for warmth, and crackers and cheese for supper, it can become an adventure.

There is a Kabbalistic term, “hamtokas hadinim beshorosham,” which relates to the ability to contemplate the source from where punishment comes and, through that, to behold its inherent sweetness. The ability to reach this level enables a person to negotiate the harshness of the punishment he is experiencing.

On Purim, we see events stripped down to their core and we contemplate that under the challenge lies the posuk of “Ahavti eschem omar Hashem,” which fuels the whole creation. Through the avodah and limudim of Purim, we are mamtik the dinim, so that by the end of Purim – as we manage one more lechayim with the strains of music quieting down in the background, and as the table is covered with the remnants of a festive seudah and the tablecloth is stained with purple wine – in our minds there are no more dinim.

It can be the struggle of a lifetime. Small people see only “hastarah” and are unable to get past that. Great people see the “ohr.” The rest of us fall somewhere in between, feeling pain and wondering where the blessing is hidden.

The megillah states that following the miraculous turn of events, “LaYehudim hoysah orah vesimcha vesasson vikor – The Jews had light, joy and splendor.” Chazal teach that the posuk is hinting at something deeper that the Jews won in the battle: “orah zu Torah, simcha zu Yom Tov, sasson zu milah, yikor zeh tefillin.”

If the posuk is hinting to Torah, Yom Tov, milah and tefillin, why doesn’t it state that directly and say, “LaYehudim hoysah Torah, Yom Tov, milah utefillin”?

Perhaps we can answer that after experiencing the miracles of Purim, the Jews appreciated the depth of the mitzvos and saw the light in Torah, the joy in Yom Tov and milah, and the splendor of tefillin. Those were no longer esoteric concepts, but were deeply felt by all. [See Sefas Emes year 648]

Rav Mordechai Pogramansky zt”l was a tremendous source of chizuk to talmidim of the olam haTorah during the Second World War. He once posed a question. Dovid Hamelech asks in Tehillim (139:7), “Ana eileich meiruchecha ve’ana miponecha evrach – Where shall I go from Your spirit and where shall I flee from Your presence?”

Rav Pogramansky wondered, “Hut Dovid Hamelech gezucht antloiffen fun Basheffer? Was Dovid Hamelech seeking to escape from Hakadosh Boruch Hu, as the posuk seems to indicate?”

He explained that people who live in times of difficulty and travail merit experiencing a different type of emunah, one that is deeper than yediah. Dovid Hamelech’s belief was such that he greeted good news and disturbing news with the same reaction: “Kos yeshuos esa uvesheim Hashem ekra.” He praised the pains and travails he experienced just as he praised the salvations Hashem granted him, as the posuk says, “Tzorah veyagon emtza uvesheim Hashem ekra.” Amazingly, both thanksgiving and mourning led him to the same place.

And so, Dovid Hamelech longed to experience this dimension of faith, but it was simply too bright in front of him, and he couldn’t locate the darkness from which he would live with emunah. So he wondered, “Ana eileich, where can I flee from His presence? Where is the realm where my yediah will be replaced by emunah?”

Rav Pogramansky turned to his talmidim and urged them to take advantage of the historic darkness they were experiencing and to grasp onto emunah and never let go.

The Vilna Gaon famously says that every posuk in Megillas Esther contributes to the greatness of the neis. The first part of the megillah details the increasing wealth, power and prestige of Achashveirosh, which all contributed to the creation of more hester. The further they seemed to be from geulah and the more the escape from golus seemed to be distant from the Jews in that period, the more the opportunity for emunah increased. The success of Achashveirosh in effect produced the neis, because it created the climate in which emunah could bring about a yeshuah.

In Mordechai’s confident cry to Esther, “Revach vehatzolah ya’amod laYehudim mimakom achier” was evident the conviction that everything they were experiencing was a mask, from which those who are baalei emunah hear the eternal cry of Knesses Yisroel.

Mordechai had the conviction to tell Esther with definite clarity that they were going to be saved. The only question was whether Esther would play a role in that salvation. He was the epitome of a baal bitachon and despite the evident hester, Mordechai knew that Hashem was there, afilu b’hastarah.

Generations of Yidden left this world with the posuk of yichud Hashem and perfect faith on their lips. Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad. That is our national mantra. We cover our eyes when we say it to hint at the fact that we can’t yet see this reality, but we already feel it.

Rav Mordechai Schwab zt”l arrived in America after years on the run, escaping dangerous Europe, enduring the perilous trip to Shanghai, and rising above the obstacles of establishing a young family in that inhospitable climate. Finally, as “the tzaddik sought to settle in peace,” his three-year-old son, Boruch Ber, named for Rav Schwab’s rebbi, was tragically killed in a car accident. The levayah was held on Erev Shabbos. A few war survivors gathered to provide comfort.

Just before the aron was lowered into the ground, Rav Schwab leaned over and addressed the niftar, his beloved son. “Boruch Ber’l,” he said, “go before the Kisei Hakavod and tell them what I taught you. Show them what you learned while you were here: Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.”

Rav Schwab was proclaiming yichud Hashem in the darkest time. He was proclaiming that the Oneness that defines happy and joyful times is the same Oneness of difficult times. He seized a moment of total darkness, with his eyes covered as never before, to proclaim emunah. In a time of hester, he tore away the mask.

Our forefathers toiled in hardship and privation, working under conditions and in situations we couldn’t even fathom, yet they remained besimcha. They focused on the truth. In our comfortable world, we take so much for granted, and that itself creates a wall that makes it difficult to feel joy. They expected nothing and took pleasure in each small bit of Divine favor.

They knew that whatever Hashem gives us is a gift. They rejoiced with what they had – good health, family, friends and life itself – and thus merited appreciating what they received.

We can also reach that level of seeing, perceiving and feeling His blessings. We can be besimcha. It’s a deeper avodah than simply cranking up loud music, but it’s much more meaningful and long-lasting. 

This might be what the Satmar Rebbe meant. All the hardships and pain he had suffered, hester behind hester, had been worth it for Purim, meaning that in the face of the revelation of the ultimate light, it became clear that it was never dark.

On Purim, we don’t say, “Es vet zein gut. It will be good.” We say, “It was always good.”

LaYehudim hoysah orah. They were flooded with a light, a powerful beacon revealing that all along it had been nothing but good.

At a Purim seudah one year, Rav Avigdor Miller zt”l commented on the words of the song being sung, “Ah gantz yohr freilach zol men zein.” He wondered what would be left after Purim. How would they be able to bottle up the emotion they were feeling at that moment and keep a supply handy for use in time of need?

He explained that on Purim, through contemplation, simcha, yayin and the story of the neis, one develops recognition for a fundamental truth: Hashem is the oheiv amo Yisroel. He loves us.

“That’s the second yesod in the Torah,” Rav Miller stated. “The first is that Hashem made the world and the second is that He loves His people. The happiness comes when you realize that Hashem is thinking about you. He doesn’t only care for the nation as whole, but for each individual.”

Rav Miller looked around the table and pointed to a man on his right and another on his left. “You see these men here? Think about them for a moment. Each one is a tzelem Elokim. Hashem is saying, ‘Those are my sons!’ He loves us more than any mother loves her child. That’s the happiness in life. There is no greater joy. It’s true all year round, but today we see it clearly. Now we internalize this truth and then we can be freilach ah gantz yohr.”

It’s the song that follows Ve’afilu Behastarah, which is for before Purim. After spending the day experiencing the Yom Tov and its mitzvos and re-immersing ourselves in the story of Megillas Esther and its lessons, and after a day spent singing Shoshanas Yaakov and LaYehudim hoysah orah, we appreciate that “Afilu behatzlachah bevadai gam shom nimtza Hashem Yisborach.”

By the time the sun sets this Purim, we will, with Hashem’s help, be singing a new song, that of Ah Gantz Yohr Freilach, for we will see Hashem even where there is hastarah.

A freilichen Purim.




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