By Rav Aryeh Zev Ginzberg
When I asked the senior class at a local yeshiva high school what was their most difficult question about Purim, one of the boys raised the following question: We can understand why the Yidden at that time made a special yom tov in their day for the great salvation that happened for them, as their archenemy Haman and his followers were killed and the decree rescinded. But why do we celebrate it so many years later? There have been so many other times in our history that we were saved from annihilation and we don’t set aside a yom tov for those other times. Even more difficult to understand is that the Gemara in Megillah, in explaining why we don’t say Hallel on Purim, explains that we are still the servants of Achashveirosh and it was not a complete salvation or yeshuah (unlike the redemption from Mitzrayim). So if we were still slaves of a wicked king, why does that salvation warrant celebration each year for thousands of years?
What really changed for Klal Yisrael beyond the decree being rescinded? Why is it an eternal yom tov, one that will be celebrated even after the coming of Mashiach, as Chazal teach us? I responded that I believe we see in Chazal that as a result of this incredible salvation, Klal Yisrael’s attitude on life drastically changed.
Chazal explain that the sin that resulted in the terrible decree via Haman was that Bnei Yisrael were “neheneh,” enjoyed, the seudah that took place in the king’s palace. It doesn’t say that they “participated” in the king’s party, because that would possibly have been permitted under those trying times, but rather because they “enjoyed” the party and found it fulfilling. They were obviously missing something in their lives. They were unsatisfied with their lot and were searching for the fulfillment someplace else. They found it at the party in the palace of Achashveirosh.
This need to find something better and more meaningful someplace else, and not to appreciate what we already currently have, is not just a “Jewish problem.” It transcends all nations and all generations. Chazal in Masechta Chullin ask an unusual question and offer an even more confusing answer. Where is the hint of Haman in the Torah? It’s in the pasuk in Bereishis where Adam HaRishon is accused and then admits “ha’min ha’eitz,” that he had indeed eaten from the forbidden tree that he was commanded to avoid. Beyond the similar letters in the two words, what does this have to do with the villain Haman in the Purim story?
Rav Shach, zt’l, explained from the ba’alei mussar that Haman had everything in the world at his disposal—wealth, power, and unlimited access to the most powerful king in the world who ruled over 127 countries. The one and only thing that he was missing was that a single despised Jew did not bow down to him. And instead of just ignoring him completely — after all, his days in this world were numbered with the impending decree — he proclaims that “kol zeh eino shavah li,” that I have nothing, I take no joy in anything I have.
Chazal question where such an incredibly bad trait comes from. The Gemara answers that it comes from the days of Adam HaRishon when he was given the entire world to use for his every whim, and yet he chose the one thing that he wasn’t given to use. He ate from the eitz ha’da’as. This is not a fault in just one’s Jewish character; it’s a fault in the basic human character as well.
And just maybe, I shared with that inquisitive student, this is the reason for the eternal celebration that we experience each year. Klal Yisrael was not only saved from the terrible genocide decree, but they went from a people seeking to find hana’ah in other places to learning that the only real sense of fulfillment comes from the realization that all you have is what HaKadosh Baruch Hu gave you. Focusing on what we do have will give us a deeper appreciation of everything that is important in life. We won’t look for that fulfillment in the palaces of Achashveirosh, which comes in different shapes and forms in each generation.
This could very well be the reason why the Rambam, who quotes the Yerushalmi in Megillah, says that chag of Purim will remain intact after Mashiach comes. Focusing on and appreciating what you do have, and not what you don’t have, is an important lesson to constantly reflect upon, even in the post-Messianic time.
This could also very well be the reason for the ancient minhag of dressing up in costumes on Purim. We dress up to look like someone else, only to remove our costumes after Purim and revert back to who we really are, with the satisfaction that this is who we are, not what we dressed up to be. Being able to find the strength to look at our inner self (with or without the help of wine) and see who we are and how happy we should be that this is who we truly are is the avodah of Purim, as well as our avodah throughout the year as well.
I joined in an impromptu Kiddush celebration a few weeks ago. As a result of being a frequent flyer because of his weekly trips for business, this person was entitled to join a select group of flyers that receive many travel perks and make the traveling travails easier to bear. However, due to a set of circumstances, he was removed from that club and thereby lost the perks that came along with it.
After much effort, he was reinstated. His friends decided to honor him with a Kiddush upon his reinstatement. One of the attendees, Reb Donny (not to be confused with the Doniel of the Purim story), upon seeing my confusion as to the exact purpose of the celebration, commented, “This is a celebration for the lesson learned that you never know what you have until you lose it … it’s a lesson to appreciate what you do have when you have it.”
That is exactly the message of Purim that we should take with us going forward. It’s something for all of us to remember, whether we are above or below the clouds.
This article was written as a z’chus for Sarah Chaya, z’l, bas Rav Aryeh Zev.