Latest update: March 19th, 2012
Just last week we experienced the crowning point of the month of Adar by commemorating the extraordinary events that unfolded in the ancient Persian Empire. We read the scroll of Esther, enjoyed a hearty feast, and traded gifts of goodies with each other.
Days later, shalach manos remnants still clutter available surface space in most homes, while the truly artistic, edible works of art sit undisturbed and whole, adorning our dining room sideboards in their original attractive packaging. Not for long, though, because Pesach’s clean sweep will have us scrambling to dismantle or ingest or give away most of the items.
Why, of all holidays, was Purim singled out for the mitzvah of shalach manos? One perspective, attributed to the Chofetz Chaim, links this to the Jews having taken part in the feast of Achashveirosh while nonetheless maintaining kashrus in their own homes. Sending and receiving shalach manos signaled trust in one another, their contention being that participation in the king’s lavish celebration was merely a show of respect for his reign.
Decidedly of greater impact, if less eye-catching, is the Purim mitzvah of matanas l’evyonim, gifts for the poor. Since the mitzvah of tzedakah is boundless as well as consistently incumbent upon us, why does it warrant such top billing at this time of year?
For one, as the twelfth month of the year, Adar affords us a last-ditch opportunity to compensate for our deficiency in repentance a half-year earlier (in the month of Elul). In the same way that we begin our thirty-day preparation at the start of Elul to stand before God on the Yom HaDin, we use the month of Adar to get into shape for Nissan, also a z’man teshuvah, a time when we recall how our Father in Heaven extracted us from the depths of impurity and raised us up to the level of kedushah. A yearning for His closeness prompts us to feel remorse for our wrongdoing, and, as the Talmud states, we will only be redeemed when we do teshuvah.
With the distribution of tzedakah, we fulfill the criteria of teshuvah: tzom (fasting) – we fast on Ta’anis Esther; kol (voice) – we listen to the reading of the megillah; and mamon (money) – we disperse charity with a generous hand.
* * * * *
The Arba Parshiyos, the four portions of Torah read on the Shabbos of their relevancy beginning with Rosh Chodesh Adar and culminating with Rosh Chodesh Nissan – namely Parshas Shekalim, Parshas Zachor, Parshas Parah and Parshas HaChodesh – correspond to the four elements that are the foundation of all creation: fire, water, earth and wind.
Shabbos Parshas Shekalim
Intended as a spiritual uplifting of the yesod of aish (the element of fire), this portion ushers in the month of Adar, during which time we renew our bond with Hashem, and is read in remembrance of the machatzis hashekel, the half shekel each member of the Jewish nation would contribute toward the upkeep of the Beis HaMikdash.
Since we, alas, do not have the Beis HaMikdash in our time, the machatzis hashekel serves as a symbol of that era and is donated to the poor (an act that should not be confused with Purim’s mitzvah of matanas l’evyonim, which is a separate observance).
The root word of machatzis is chatzi (half), composed of the letters ches, tzaddik and yud. The tzaddik in the center stands for tzedakah (charity), while the ches and yud on either side form chai (life) – emphasizing that charity confers life on the giver.
According to an interpretation ascribed to the Shach, man can never be fully satisfied with what he attains and will always feel the need for something more, due to the fact that of the four elements involved in man’s creation, only half – water and earth – are weighable; the machatzis hashekel comes to symbolize that man will invariably have only half of what he craves.
Shabbos Parshas Zachor
The second of the four parshiyos, read on the Shabbos preceding Purim, conveys correction of the element of water and recalls what Amalek did to us on the way out of Egypt (asher karcha baderech – when they met you on the way). The root of the word karach is kar (cold), an allusion to the yesod hamayim (foundation of water), which is cold – as are the cold-blooded Amalekim bent on annihilating the Jewish nation to this day.
The portion begins with an admonition to “Zachor… remember what Amalek did to you…” and ends with “Lo tishkach – do not forget.” Why the redundancy? Reb Elimelech’s reaction to someone who complained of his increasing forgetfulness offers us a clue. The tzaddik advised the sufferer to do teshuvah because repentance is a segulah for good memory retention. Giving in to the yetzer hara leads to a mind blockage, whereas the act of teshuvah has the power of removing one’s forgetfulness. Hence, the mitzvah of obliterating any vestige of evil – as in eradicating one’s evil inclination – will promote good memory.
Shabbos Parshas Parah
The spiritual fix for the element of earth lies in this parshah. The mitzvah of parah adumah, a decree that is beyond the parameters of human understanding, was instituted as atonement for the cheit ha’egel – sin of the golden calf.
On a Shabbos Parshas Parah, Rabbi Chanoch Henich of Alexander recounted the following story: A bishop’s relentless hatred of the Jews spurred him to constantly vilify them to the king of the land. His persistent slander eventually paid off when his request for a verbal match with the “unfaithful even to their own religion” was granted. Should the bishop suffer defeat, he would be put to death, but should he be victor of the duel, the Jews would be driven from the land, or worse.
The Jews were overcome with panic and anxiety until a simple but pious man offered himself to be the bishop’s opponent in the contest of wits. He allayed skepticism of his competence by assuring his fellow Jews that Hashem would help him triumph and save them from the bishop’s evil intent.
A date was set, the podium erected, and no time wasted as the bishop stared down the nondescript figure at the opposite end of the platform with derision; the bishop had expected the Jews to dispatch their most eminent leader at such a critical time, yet here stood a simpleton.
Accorded first shot at asking a question of the bishop, the Jewish man ingenuously put forth, “What is the translation of the words ‘eini yode’a’ which appear successively in our holy books?”
The bishop’s reply of “I don’t know” prompted an incredulous judge to pronounce the Jew the winner of the debate, while the bishop’s attempts to protest the ruling – on the basis that he had actually provided the correct answer to the Jew’s question – fell on deaf ears.
As the bishop was removed from their midst, the Jews’ joy was boundless. Prodded to reveal how he had arrived at such a clever stratagem, their new hero replied in all earnestness: “As a simple man, I read the parshah with the accompanying translation in my Chumash. And I have consistently found that the only words to have escaped the translator are ‘eini yode’a’ – where it always states ‘I don’t know’ in place of the translation.”
In his guileless manner, he explained, “I reckoned that if a big talmid chacham responsible for the translation in the Chumash could not fathom the meaning of those words, it would surely escape the bishop’s mind.”
With immense gratitude to the Almighty for His miraculous intervention, the Jews celebrated the victory that came about as a direct result of this simple Jew’s lack of knowledge.
And thus, concluded Reb Henich, from this story we derive the lesson contained in Parshas Parah – that while the purpose of the mitzvah of the parah adumah eludes us, the devout reading of the parshah can nonetheless bring each of us the remedy we yearn for.
Shabbos Parshas HaChodesh
Appropriately, this parshah follows the one that explores the process of our purification when the Beis HaMikdash stood in all its glory. By virtue of reading the aforementioned parshah, it is as though we’ve undergone purification in readiness for the holiday of Pesach.
Literally “the parshah of the month,” Parshas HaChodesh is a reference to the new month of Nissan and is read on the Shabbos preceding the start of Nissan, or on Shabbos Rosh Chodesh Nissan should the new month begin on a Shabbos (as it does this year). In light of our renewal at the time of our redemption from Egyptian slavery, when God essentially breathed new life into us, the connection of chodesh (new) to the element of ruach (wind, spirit, breath) can be fully appreciated.
This parshah derives its name from the words in the Torah “Ha’chodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim” – “this month is for you the head of all months.” Nissan marks the start of the lunar year and is considered as the birth of creation. (Tishrei heralds the birth of man in a physical sense, whereas Nissan is regarded as the time of our spiritual emergence.)
The earthly king rules over all the land and administers reward and punishment to the deserving of his subjects, evening the score with the adversaries of his intimate friends while rewarding the latter for their loyalty.
L’havdil, on Rosh Hashanah Hashem sits in judgment of all the nations in the universe. But in Nissan He scrutinizes and judges nations for the manner in which they behave toward the Jewish people. It is in this vein that the Torah states “it is the head of all months for you [for your benefit]” (Kedushas Levi).
* * * * *
We began this discussion with Purim and have arrived at the cusp of Nissan and are dwelling on the significance of Pesach. Not such a stretch, in view of how quickly time passes – particularly the weeks between Purim and Pesach. In fact, wherever we turn the lament seems the same: the days/weeks/months are flying.
A unique take on this manifestation, recently expressed by a close acquaintance, was jarring. This “push to get things done, for time is moving quickly” is no longer an age-related sentiment. Today everyone seems to be feeling the pressure to get things done – not on account of our fast-paced world but because Hashem is infusing each of us with a sense of urgency in order to have us prepare for the ultimate yeshuah at hand.
* * * * *
The gaon Rabbi Moshe Kremer, a forebear of the Vilna Gaon, set perhaps the ideal example of how to make the best of time – at a most opportune time, divinely speaking.
So resistant was he to relying on his kehilla for support (refusing to use his Torah as a means of livelihood) that he and his wife set up a small shop from which they sold food and household goods to sustain their family.
The Jews of Vilna felt an obligation to buy solely from their rav to compensate him for the wages he turned down. When this caused other shopkeepers to lose out, the rav asked his rebbetzin to conduct the sale of their wares on only one day of the week and immediately close the shop when they arrived at the amount necessary for their survival.
His disheartened followers hit upon a perfect plan. Purim was approaching and their rav could not possibly turn down their offers of shalach manos, a mitzvah on their part. And so an unabated stream of Purim revelers came to deliver elaborate packages of the finest in edibles and plenty more.
With no end in sight and the shalach manos piling up, Rav Moshe sent his shamesh to gather all the town’s poor folks, as well as widows and orphans, to come and partake of the Seudas Purim in the home of the gaon. The downtrodden that had come to assuage their hunger with food befitting a king’s banquet soon overwhelmed the modest premises, and the festivity was moved outdoors.
As Rav Moshe’s words of Torah nourished souls thirsting for spiritual infusion, doleful eyes began to sparkle with new life. Soothing warmth enveloped all those present, and the sound of voices breaking out in song further heightened the exultant atmosphere. Rav Moshe sent his shamesh out again, this time to summon all the noted luminaries of Vilna to join them.
Before long, the simple folk and the wise men, the indigent and the affluent, the young and the old mixed and mingled as though they were one. Rav Moshe took his cue and rose to address the crowd that had become “as one man with one heart.”
“My dear brethren and children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Up to this moment it is I who has hosted you with shalach manos. Now I ask that each of you send shalach manos to your brothers in need, those whom you are seated next to, as well as the ones who did not join us here tonight.
“Pesach will be here in no time and some of us will lack the barest of requirements for Yom Tov such as wine for the arba kosos or the basic greens needed to prepare a simple soup. If all of us will take a tenth off of each of our purchases acquired in honor of Pesach, I will assign two gabbaim to distribute the goods to the impoverished among us.”
They stood up, one by one, linking arms instinctively, as rapturous song reverberated in the nighttime air and feet lifted high in rhythm to the beating hearts that soared. Rav Moshe’s message was well received.
* * * * *
Let’s backtrack a bit, to where the Talmud states we will only be redeemed when we do teshuvah – in large part contingent upon fulfilling the grandest mitzvah in the Torah, that of giving tzedakah “with a generous hand.”
What better time to prove ourselves worthy of the Ultimate Redemption?
Rachel Weiss is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.
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