I have mentioned before in these pages the two annual events I attended with my parents when I was growing up. These were called hazkaros and they commemorated the cities they came from. However, these were not the type of reunions attended by students for their alma mater. These were cities decimated by the Nazis, yemach shemom, and the participants were all recent survivors. My father’s city was Sztremiashitz, Poland, and my mother’s was Chust in Czechoslovakia. My memory of these events is that they were upbeat, with no trace of morbidity. We children of the second generation milled around, playing, laughing, with little understanding of the significance of these heroic people cherishing every minute of life and their rebuilding, often with new spouses, and always struggling to acclimate to the new country and language.
Little did I know then that by osmosis I would learn so many of life’s lessons and coping techniques from these amazing people. One of them is the secret of Purim.
The Gemara (Megillah 7a) tells us that Esther sent the chachomim of that time, apparently the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah, a request to enter the Megillah into the canon of Tanach. Heretofore, there were only 23 seforim in this sacred set. Esther’s audacious entreaty was to have her Megillah join the ranks of Yeshayahu and Yirmiyahu, indeed of Shmuel and Tehillim. Why exactly? Surely, it was not ego or arrogance, G-d forbid.
One answer is that we know that Esther was a double orphan, from both her father and mother. Mordechai took pity upon her and eventually they married. The word was that after Vashti’s indiscretion, the king was looking for a queen. Mordechai and Esther were, of course, for many reasons, not interested in her becoming a candidate, but she was nevertheless taken forcibly by the king’s henchmen. Esther did all that she could to avoid this fate, but became the queen.
Let us try to put ourselves into Esther’s mind for a moment. All she had in the world was Mordechai and her fierce connection to Hashem and Klal Yisroel. Suddenly, she finds herself in the hands of a fellow anti-Semite of Haman’s, the sybaritic Achashveirosh. She knows that this is the will of Hashem and is willing to be moser nefesh for Klal Yisroel, but must go to the king under circumstances that could cause her death no less than Vashti. Of course, we know that Esther triumphed and helped to bring about one of the greatest yeshuos in Klal Yisroel’s history. What does she want now? It is only one thing. “Kisvuni ledoros – Write down my story,” she beseeches, so that Jews will forever learn never to give up. The section of Tehillim for Purim is kappitel 22, wherein Esther first asks, “Hashem, why have You forsaken me?” That was the moment when Esther thought that all was lost, but later she is able to declare that Hashem always hears our cries and “rescues and saves” us. This is the lesson I learned from my parents and their fellow survivors. Never give up. Never surrender. Rebuild and Hashem will give you the strength, stamina and courage.
Rav Goel Elkarif tells two stories in this context, which also unite Esther’s saga and that of the Churban Europa survivors. Rav Eliezer Deutsch, later of Manchester, England, was on one of the miserable freight trains to Auschwitz. On the way, in the choking, frightening atmosphere, with no food, water or bathrooms, he tried to remind his brethren that “even if a sharp sword hangs over a person, he should not give up” (Brachos 10a). When they arrived at their horrific destination, Rav Deutsch’s detractors responded to his divrei chizuk with the bitter words, “We are in Auschwitz now. All hope is lost.” But he persisted in his emunah and bitachon. Even at the feared selektzia, when he was sent to the terrifying deadly left, he did not lose his faith. Others said him derisively, out of abject fear and gloom, “We now have one foot in death’s door. What do you say now?” His answer once again was, “Ain od milevado.” Rav Eliezer was being shoved into the crematorium, but it was already crowded, so he was pulled out of it by the Nazi in charge. Rav Eliezer was a large man and he was holding up the proceedings. Saved from the gas chamber, he was a part of liberation soon after.
Never give up even if the sword is already on your neck.
The great gaon, Rav Yisroel Gustman, was a prisoner in a work camp, when they were told that they were due to be killed in a few moments. The future rosh yeshiva of Netzach Yisroel spoke up shockingly to the Nazis. “In three hours, we will complete this job that we have begun. Doesn’t it make sense that we finish it first?” The Nazi guard agreed, but Rav Gustman’s friends were aghast. “Are you aiding and abetting these evil people at the end of our lives?”
Rav Gustman’s answer brimmed with emunah: “Not at all. I am obtaining for us three more hours of avodas Hashem. Our bodies will continue the job, but our souls will be engaging in teshuvah and tefillah.”
Soon the Nazis received an order from “above” not to murder that group and all survived.
It is the same lesson of faith I learned from the Yidden of Sztremiashitz and Chust half a century ago. Never give up. Never lose faith. Esther won her case to the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah and we can learn from them once again on Purim.
But there is another aspect of this lesson embedded in Purim. Not only does “the yeshuah of Hashem come in a moment,” but we must also be patient and wait for that yeshuah. We must do our part, which often involves performing a mitzvah that comes with difficulty, doing so with patience and trust that we are fulfilling Hashem’s will.
Rav Shalom Schwadron used to relate a story about the Chacham Tzvi. He had left his city to avoid machlokes, and he and his family were taken in by a kindly family of means. The man of the house did not know exactly who the Chacham Tzvi was, but he did realize that he was a talmid chochom and holy man. However, after several weeks, his wife began to tire of the situation and asked him to find out from the rabbi how much longer they would be staying.
The Chacham Tzvi’s answer was astounding, historic, and crucial to our understanding of Purim as well. That very day, a prominent delegation from the prominent city of Lvov had arrived at the rov’s temporary home to offer him the rabbinate of that prestigious city, which the Chacham Tzvi accepted. When the rich man heard of this offer and acceptance, he realized that he had been hosting one of the Torah giants of his day – and in fact one of the major poskim of many generations. In remorse, the baal habayis begged the Chacham Tzvi to stay longer, until he was settled in Lvov, but the great rov revealed to him what had actually happened. “You should know,” he began softly, “that this was to have been my last day here, as you can see from these events. However, I was empowered by heaven to give you two major blessings. In exchange for your hospitality and kindness, you would receive the brocha of fabulous wealth for you and your family until the end of time. In recognition of your kavod haTorah, you would receive the brocha that the Torah would never leave your family until the end of time.”
“However,” came the sad punch line, “you will still receive the brocha of wealth, but because your kavod haTorah was deficient, I am not permitted to grant you the second brocha.”
The name of that family was Rothchild and the rest is history. They are still wealthy, but Torah has left them long ago and many of their children are sadly not even Jewish.
What does all this have to with Purim? Many have asked over the centuries why Amaleik is treated differently than all of our enemies. We read a parsha that commands us to remember all that they perpetrated against us. They are under an edict of destruction that is all-encompassing and eternal. But surely there have been other enemies of Klal Yisroel, where our reactions to their evil are not as severe. The Egyptians murdered our children, Nevuchadnetzar wreaked havoc upon our nation and its holy places, and the Greeks tried to convert us. What is so unique about Amaleik?
The sefer Bais Genazai, by Rav Luriah, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Shaar Hashomayim, explains that all the other nations were created in a state of tumah – defilement – and draw their power and energy from our sins and failings. Therefore, when Klal Yisroel did teshuvah, each of the other nations who tried to destroy us disappeared and were completely compromised. However, Amaleik draws its own power by taking advantage of our becoming weak in our mitzvah observance. Thus, even Refidim, the place where they first attacked, refers to the weakening of our hold on the Torah (Medrash Tanchuma, Beshalach). When our own sense of kedusha is disrupted and weakened, Amaleik swoops in like vultures and steals our kedusha and converts it to evil power.
Therefore, how do we fight Amaleik? It must be differently than the way we battle all others. It must be by increasing mitzvos and disarming Amaleik through our own perfection. Thus, all the Medrashim on the Megillah, including the Targum Sheini, tell of Mordechai gathering the children to teach them about various mitzvos. Yom Kippur is like Purim (Yom KePurim) because just as on Purim our adherence to mitzvos saved the day, so too, on Yom Kippur we should try to daven better, be scrupulous about the five forbidden pleasures, and do the mitzvah of teshuvah.
We are commemorating the first yahrtzeit of Maran Sar HaTorah Rav Chaim Kanievsky zt”l, so it is appropriate to close with a story told by his son-in-law, Rav Yitzchok Kolodetsky. Before there was a Chinuch Atzmai, a wonderful askan undertook to establish programs for the secularly educated children of Bat Yam. After a number of years, when he was $30,000 in debt, he asked Rav Chaim if perhaps it was time to stop, since there were no longer any funds. Rav Chaim’s answer was clear: “You must continue and Hashem will surely help.” With mesirus nefesh, the good Yid continued, but the new school year required cleaning and upgrading. There was no money, so he rolled up his sleeves and did the job himself. As he was cleaning out an old closet, he discovered two barrels dated 1908. When he asked an expert to place a value on the barrels and their contents, he was told that they are worth…$30,000. Rav Chaim was extremely happy, but Rav Kolodetsky pointed out that over 100 years before, someone had put aside items that would be used for a yeshuah long after he was gone. The Bat Yam philanthropist, like so many others, was fighting Amaleik by performing mitzvos, like Mordechai and Esther, with mesirus nefesh, something that Amaleik can never take from us.
May we, too, take advantage of this wonderful day, to strain ourselves to do mitzvos with mesirus nefesh. This will surely be the best weapon with which to fight the modern-day Amaleik and help bring us the ultimate yeshuah bimeheirah beyomeinu.