Friday, March 6, 2009

Purim: A Holiday founded on Chesed (Derashah Zachor 5769)

This derashah was actually a mussarish talk for an issue in our community. I have excluded the community-relevant piece, which somewhat damages the flow but leaves the dvar torah intact.

Our Yamim Tovim commemorate glorious historic events – national rebirth, covenants between the finite and the Infinite, moments of Divine intervention in the lives of mortal humanity – but they also commemorate the themes which shaped our ancestors’ actions in the past and which remain a part of our national psyche.

Those themes shape the way we mark each holiday – the mitzvot of the day translate those themes into action.

On Succot, for example, we commemorate the theme of Emunah, trust in Gd, לכתך אחרי במדבר בארץ לא זרועה, our ancestors’ willingness to trail after a pillar of cloud and a column of flame in a land which provided neither milk nor honey. Therefore, we celebrate by sitting in סוכות, huts which offer scant protection against the elements, trusting in Gd to look after us.

On Pesach we commemorate the theme of Masorah, that tradition which communicated פקוד יפקוד, Gd will save you, and so inspired the enslaved descendants of Avraham and Sarah to cry out to Gd. Therefore, we celebrate with והגדת לבנך, with a Seder constructed around the theme of Masorah, of telling our children about our history, conveying precisely that message that Gd will come to our rescue.

On Shavuot we commemorate the theme of Commitment to Gd, our pledge of timeless loyalty and devotion memorialized at Sinai in the words נעשה ונשמע, We will do and we will hear. Therefore, we celebrate by bringing the ביכורים, the First Fruits, each farmer committing the first benefits of his year’s labor to Gd at the Beit haMikdash.

Which brings us to Purim, and the association between its practical mitzvot and Purim’s driving theme.

We mark Purim with four mitzvot: Megilah reading, the Purim Seudah, Mishloach Manot (gifts of food), and Matanot laEvyonim (tzedakah).

We read the megilah to remember the miracle and to thank Gd for creating it. We enjoy a Purim Seudah because we always celebrate Divine rescue with a feast of thanks.

But what holiday-related theme is evoked with these mitzvot of Chesed – giving gifts of food, or tzedakah?

An answer, I think, lies in the Chesed event that made the Purim miracle possible – an event that is barely mentioned, but critical to the storyline.

Before Haman’s ascendancy, before the beauty contest for the queen’s job, even before Achashverosh’s party, a single key act of generosity made everything else possible, paving the way for our salvation. It’s there in the megilah, but it doesn’t demand our attention and we tend to skip it.

The entire megilah rests on this single act of chesed: “ויהי אומן את הדסה היא אסתר בת דודו כי אין לה אב ואם, And Mordechai nurtured Hadassah, aka Esther, his cousin, because she had neither father nor mother.” Esther was an orphan, and Mordechai, her senior cousin, took her into his home and raised her.

Chesed is the theme that drives Purim. Just as Batyah’s adoption of Moshe in the Torah shaped one redemption, so Mordechai’s adoption of Esther in the Megilah shaped another:

Because Mordechai had adopted Esther, he was able to help guide her character as she matured.

Because Mordechai had adopted Esther, he was able to advise her when Achashverosh’s talent scouts came knocking.

And ויהי אומן, because Mordechai had adopted Esther, he was able to coach her when she was in the palace.

This great act of selflessness, taking in an orphan and raising her as his own, made all of the difference.

And so, every year, we mark Purim not only by thanking Gd with megilah and a feast, but also with Chesed, sharing gifts and giving tzedakah to commemorate the kindness that planted the seeds of redemption.

This morning we concluded קריאת התורה with the story of Amalek’s attack, with the account of how this nation who had no apparent issue with us chose to attack us out of the blue.

The Torah indicates that Amalek was not a great warrior nation; we davened and we rallied to drive them off, and even before that they were not able to score much of a military victory. As the Torah describes it, they were scavengers. ויזנב בך כל הנחשלים אחריך, They attacked those who were weak, the stragglers at the back.

We are charged with the annual responsibility of remembering Amalek’s attack, not only to commemorate their viciousness but also to reinforce our defenses against their attack, to ensure that the next Amalek in history’s long parade of Amalek’s is not able to repeat the success of the original.

When we succeed in ויהי אומן, when we follow Mordechai’s lead and adopt those around us, then there are no נחשלים, there are no vulnerable stragglers, there will be no victory for Amalek. Instead, ליהודים היתה אורה ושמחה וששון ויקר, we will be able to celebrate a Purim victory.

1. There are more acts of Chesed in the megilah - Mordechai for Achashverosh, Hatach for Mordechai and Esther, ditto regarding Charvonah, and, of course, Esther for the Jewish people as a whole.

2. Of course, another source for Matanot laEvyonim and Mishloach Manot is a counter-balance for Haman's allegation of
ישנו עם אחד מפוזר ומפורד בין העמים, the splintered character of the Jewish people. And a third source, which fits Mishneh Berurah 694:3, is that these mitzvot generate joy, enhancing our national celebration of the miracle.


  1. very nice. This gave me a big smile, particularly as our local rabbi and his wife have become parents through adoption. :)

  2. This is great. I'm linking.