Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Face of Purim

Purim is different.

When all the Yomim Tovim will cease to be celebrated and only be remembered as part of golus, Purim will live on; a day of joy in a time of ultimate joy.

Estranged Jews appreciate the awe of Rosh Hashanah and listen to the cry of the shofar, but they have a hard time with Purim. They wonder how this can be a holiday. And what is the deal with the alcohol, the clowning around, and the lack of decorum?

The closer we are to the source of joy, the more joyous we are. If we go to a wedding and don’t know the celebrating families, we aren’t too happy there. The better we know the baalei simcha, the more joyous we are and the more we participate. When someone dances with abandon and obvious joy at a wedding, you can safely assume that he has a close connection to the celebrating families.

The more we are able to appreciate the source of the happiness of Purim, the happier we are, and the longer we are able experience that joy. People privileged to live Torah lives, connected with the meaning and flavor of life, experience Purim joy with the onset of Adar.

What is it about Purim that generates so much joy and elation? Even today, when so many hearts are numb and emotion comes hard, we can still sense the simcha. There is a mitzvah to be happy on Yomim Tovim. On Purim, it is so much easier for all to feel it.

Because Purim is personal.

Like a beacon of light on a dark, stormy night, Purim shines into our world. Everyone struggles. We have days when events threaten to engulf us. We encounter people and situations that we find intolerable. We can feel lost and abandoned. We wonder why there is so much hate in our world and why people seem intent on destroying others. It bothers us and brings on a certain sense of despondency. We pine for proper leadership to fill vacuums and right wrongs. We need so much money to survive; there are so many struggles to make ends meet. Every penny we earn is swallowed up. So many are sick or suffering in other ways, and eagerly awaiting a yeshuah.

How is it that when Purim comes, our worries are set aside and we celebrate as if we are mechutonim?

The Baal Shem Tov once traveled through a tiny, forlorn town consisting of a few farmhouses and fields. The locals were suffering from a severe drought. The lack of rainwater threatened the crops and their livelihoods were in jeopardy. If the drought would continue, they would all starve.

When the Baal Shem Tov went into the shul, he saw the entire town – men, women and children – gathered there, listening respectfully to the words of a visiting maggid. The preacher was castigating the people for their misdeeds, telling them that their offensive behavior was causing Heaven to withhold the blessing of rain.

When the maggid finished, the Baal Shem Tov rose to speak. “What do you want from these people?” he asked the maggid. “They work long, hard hours, toiling under the blazing sun all day. When they have a few minutes of peace, they hurry to the shul to daven and learn a bit. What do you want from them? What type of message are you giving them?”

Turning to the crowd of farmers and their families, the Baal Shem Tov said, “Tayere Yidden, this is what you must know. We have a Creator with unlimited abilities, and He can do whatever He wants. He loves us and wants to shower us with blessings. So come, Yidden. Let us dance.”

The Baal Shem Tov led the simple townspeople in joyous dance. The circle of Jews began singing their thanks and praise to the Master of the Universe.

When they were done and left the shul to return home, they were greeted by a driving rain that turned the roads and fields into mud.

It rained and rained, drenching the happy townspeople as they danced their way home.

The Baal Shem Tov gave them reason to dance. The Creator loves us and wants the best for us. He can do anything.

This knowledge is like a bolt of lightning that lights up the night.

Throughout the year, we are confronted by various types of people and the vast spectrum of human behavior, from righteous and noble to incorrigibly evil and the many shades in between.

We live in a world where up is down and down is up. We have to resist being bowled over and led astray. No matter what comes over us and the world, we must maintain our equilibrium and faith.

Rav Yitzchok Hutner told of two men who were lost overnight in a forest. To survive in the thick blanket of darkness and terror, one man figured out how to see in the darkness, while the other sharpened his hearing to be able to discern when danger was approaching.

Which of the two, asked Rav Hutner, learned a more valuable skill?

He said that it is the second man, the one who developed the ability to perceive sounds and identify them, who possessed the more crucial expertise, because in the morning, when the sun comes up and the world is bathed in light, that skill will still be helpful to them in their lost state.

When Moshiach comes, the ability to see in darkness will no longer be necessary, as the world will be filled with light. But the ability to hear the knock of Hashgocha and understand that every sound is an announcement of Hashem’s Presence will always be useful. Purim won’t ever go away, as it is the Yom Tov that teaches us to listen and hear the deeper message.

When good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people, the Megillah reminds us that appearances are deceptive. The Megillah reminds us all that everything that happens is part of a Divine plan, which we can’t expect to understand until the entire story has unfolded.

That message resonates wherever Jews find themselves. As we masquerade about exchanging mishloach manos with friends and distributing Purim gelt, we tap into the holiness and message of the holy day.

It is a message that never loses its timeliness.

Every year, we gain a new appreciation of what took place during those critical times and its relevance to us today. We also gain a new perspective.

We have been so close to the brink, but have always been allowed to climb back up. How can we not rejoice?

One year on Purim, surrounded by multitudes of chassidim hanging on to his every word, the Chiddushei Horim began speaking. This is what he said: “When we start reading the Megillah, we might wonder why we are being told stories about some Persian king. Why do we care that he feasted for three years after being crowned? We continue reading and are told stories about a queen who refused to attend a feast and her punishment. Then we read about the procedure of finding a new queen. And we wonder: Why do we need to know this?”

The rebbe was quiet, deep in thought. He sat up and answered his questions. “In the time of Moshiach,” he said, “many strange things will happen. Nobody will understand what is happening. And then, suddenly, they will realize that it was all tied to the geulah.”

To say that strange occurrences are taking place in our day is an understatement. We are confounded by the daily happenings, so many of which seem to make no sense. Soon the day will arrive when everything will become clear. For now, we have Purim.

Our friend whom we all pray for, Reb Sholom Mordechai Halevi ben Rivka, is always happy. He is really happy. Although he is locked into a depressing place, without any outside stimulants to lift his spirits, he doesn’t see darkness and despair. The message of Purim animates him and causes him to smile all year. He is one with Hashem, and he knows that his freedom is dependent upon the Merciful One. He spends his time learning Torah and being mechazeik people. He is a Purim Yid.

Sholom Mordechai calls me regularly, and if there are people around when he calls, I put the phone on speaker and tell them to listen. We carry on our conversation as if he’s living next door. He laughs at a good joke harder than you ever heard anyone laugh. Then he asks for a vort on the parsha and we discuss it.

People who hear his vibrant voice, guttural laugh, and longing for a word of Torah are overcome with emotion. How can it be? How can that be him? Is it really him? Amazing. Unbelievable.

In that place of sadness and forced depression, he laughs as if he is the freest man alive. And the truth is that he is. He is freer than people enslaved to their habits, urges, appetites and things they think are life’s necessities. Torah, emunah and tefillah empower him. They energize him. Nobody has it as bad as him, locked up as he is with the worst of society. Yet he smiles. He laughs. He wants to hear a vort on the parsha.

He is a Purim Yid. He knows that it was divinely ordained for him to be there, so he is happy to be following Hashem’s plan. And when Hashem decides that it is time to come out, he will be “on the outside,” as they say in prison vernacular.

We all have stuff going on in our lives that we wish wasn’t there. There are many problems awaiting solutions. Life isn’t always perfect. We can get down. We can find it impossible to laugh and hard to learn Torah. There is an urge to withdraw from other people. Whatever it is that’s bothering us, chances are that he is worse off.

There are other Purim Yidden, great people tested time and again, who are “freilach ah gantz yohr.” With indomitable strength, they maintain their belief and live wholesome lives. We need to learn from them.

Esther is repeatedly tested throughout the period in which the story takes place. Each time, it appears that there is no way she can outmaneuver the evil facing her. She is galvanized by her hopes rather than her fears. She relies upon the sage counsel of her uncle, the Rosh Sanhedrin. With Mordechai’s support, fear can’t paralyze her.

Faced with situations from which we think there is no way we can extricate ourselves without getting hurt, we should remember Queen Esther and gain strength from the knowledge that by doing the right thing, she saved her people from certain destruction. By following Mordechai’s instructions, she became immortalized in the consciousness of the Jewish people as a righteous and strong woman who put the fate of her people ahead of her personal safety and happiness.

The Jews of Shushan taught a message that is passed down through the ages. They felt doomed. The lot was drawn and their fate was sealed. They rose to the challenge. Thanks to the leadership of Mordechai and Esther, Hashem heard their tefillos and accepted their teshuvah. A day marked for sadness and death was transformed into a day of celebration and deliverance for all time.

The Rosh Hashanah l’shonim, the first day of Tishrei, is preceded by a month of teshuvah. The first day of Nissan is Rosh Hashanah l’regolim, marking the beginning of the annual cycle of Yomim Tovim. The Sefas Emes suggests that just like the teshuvah in Elul prepares us for Rosh Hashanah, the month prior to the Rosh Hashanah l’regolim, Adar, is a teshuvah period.

But there is a marked difference between the two periods of repentance. During Elul, the teshuvah is brought on by fear of the impending judgment. During Adar, it begins as teshuvah m’ahavah, repentance brought on by love, joy and anticipation.

On Purim, we are reminded not to be sad or downcast. We all have our problems. Everyone has a pekel. On Purim, we are reminded that just as our ancestors were delivered from despair, so can we be spared of our burdens.

The sun will shine again. Good will triumph over evil.

It’s Purim. Dance, smile and be happy. Look at the positive. Be optimistic.

Purim is not an escape from reality. Purim is reality. Purim is a reminder of the reality that empowers the Jewish people with the clarity and awareness to continue on.

If we allow Purim into our daily avodah, we can become changed people.

Permit the spirit of Purim to overtake you.

We remember Amaleik and their sin, and with that, we remember how great we are. Rav Chaim Brim repeated what he heard from Reb Shea Bergman, an elderly Yerushalmi baal korei who had lained for Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. The baal korei recalled that every year, Rav Yosef Chaim was called to the Torah for the maftir of Parshas Zachor, and each year he drenched the bimah with tears.

Rav Yosef Chaim thought about what was – the many rounds between Amaleik and Klal Yisroel – and also saw the final battle, after which we alone will remain standing. The tears of Purim are special. There are rivers of teshuvah merging with rivers of ahava, simcha and kirvas Hashem all together.

Before tekias shofar, the Jews of Salant would marvel at the change in the features of their rov, Reb Zundel. As he grasped the shofar, his face would radiate such holiness that it became difficult to look at him.

They asked him about it and he sighed. “My rebbi, Rav Chaim Volozhiner, looked this way every morning as he lifted his tefillin from their bag. I only experience it once a year,” he lamented.

On Purim, look at the faces around you. At least on this day of the year, we see the truth. Look at the faces and you’ll see inner joy. You will see the happiness of belief. The joy of clarity. All year round, people have various looks on their faces, but the look you see on Purim is the truest face of all.

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